Author: David Alton
Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking – update on the latest amendments and debates on the Modern Day Slavery Bill
Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking – update on the latest amendments and debates on the Modern Day Slavery Bill
Scroll down for earlier stages and background to this legislation:
Report Stage amendment on Supply Chain Transparency:
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench) 8:45 pm, 25th February 2015
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Young of Hornsey. I strongly support her Amendments 93 and 94 and the government amendments in this group.
Like my noble friend, I thank the Minister for meeting me and other noble Lords and a number of civil society stakeholders earlier this month to discuss transparency in supply chains. Noble Lords will recall that I and the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of Cradley and Lady Mobarik, raised this issue in Committee. I also spoke about it at Second Reading. The Minister kindly said that, unusually following the…
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House of Commons Amendment To Safeguard The Lives of Unborn Girls Defeated – 201 votes to 292 votes – Full debate follows
House of Commons Amendment To Safeguard The Lives of Unborn Girls Defeated – 201 votes to 292 votes – Full debate and the Division List of how MPs voted follows:
On January 22nd, 73 Members of the House of Commons signed an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill based upon the Abortion (Sex-Selection) Ten Minute Rule Bill.
At the conclusion of its Committee Stage , Fiona Bruce laid an amendment to Section 65 of the Serious Crime Bill 2014, clarifying that the Abortion Act 1967 does not permit a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.
The amendment was selected by Mr.Speaker for debate at Report Stage and was voted upon. If it had succeeded it would have become law when the Serious Crime Bill receives Royal Assent.
This short amendment would have gone into Part 5 of the…
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Mesothelioma – call in the Houyse of Lords for an annual Impact statement to monitor the number of fatalities and progress on research into causes and cures
Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2015
Motion to Consider
5.27 pm Wednesday February 25th 2015
That the Grand Committee do consider the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2015.
Relevant document: 20th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
My Lords, I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, and the Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2015. I am required to confirm to the Committee that these provisions are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and I am happy to do so.
These two regulations will increase by 1.2% the lump sum amounts payable under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the diffuse mesothelioma scheme set up by the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. These new amounts will be paid to those who first satisfy all the conditions of entitlement on or after 1 April 2015. These two schemes stand apart from the main social security benefits uprating procedure and there is no legislative requirement to review the level of payments each year. None the less, I am happy to confirm the increase of the amounts payable for 2015 by the consumer price index. This is the same 1.2% rate that is being applied to industrial injuries disablement benefit and some other social security disability benefits under the main social security uprating provisions.
The Government recognise that people suffering from diseases as a result of exposure to asbestos or one of a number of other listed agents may be unable to bring a successful claim for civil damages relating to their disease. This is mainly due to the long latency period between exposure and onset of the disease, often stretching back decades. Also, even pursuing a claim can take some time. We therefore fulfil an important role by providing lump sum compensation payments to sufferers of certain asbestos-related diseases through these two schemes. This does not debar a civil claim, which can still be pursued. These government schemes also aim to ensure that sufferers receive compensation while they themselves can still benefit from it, without first having to await the outcome of civil litigation.
Improved health and safety procedures have restricted the use of asbestos and provided a safer environment for its handling. However, the historic legacy of the common use of asbestos is still with us. That is why we are ensuring that financial compensation from both these schemes is available to those affected. I will very briefly summarise the specific purpose of these lump sum compensation schemes. The Pneumoconiosis etc (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 scheme—which for simplicity I shall refer to as the 1979 Act scheme—provides a lump sum compensation payment to those who suffer from one of five dust-related respiratory diseases covered by the scheme but are unable to claim damages from employers because they have gone out of business and have not brought any action against others for damages. The five diseases covered by the 1979 Act scheme are diffuse mesothelioma, bilateral diffuse pleural thickening, pneumoconiosis, byssinosis and primary carcinoma of the lung, if accompanied by asbestosis or bilateral diffuse pleural thickening. The 2008 mesothelioma lump sum payments scheme was introduced to provide compensation to people who contracted diffuse mesothelioma but were unable to claim compensation for that disease under the 1979 Act—for example, because their exposure to asbestos was not due to their work. The 2008 scheme means that payments can be made quickly to diffuse mesothelioma sufferers at their time of greatest need. Under both schemes, a claim can be made by a dependant if the sufferer has died before being able to make a claim.
The rates payable under the 1979 Act scheme are based on the level of the disablement assessment and the age of the sufferer at the time the disease is diagnosed. The highest amounts are made to those diagnosed at an early age and with the highest level of disablement. All payments for diffuse mesothelioma under the 1979 Act scheme are made at the 100% disablement rate—the highest rate of payment. Similarly, all payments under the 2008 scheme are made at that 100% rate and based on age, with the highest payments going to the youngest sufferers.
I will give some detailed figures on claims and monies paid out under the two schemes. In the last full year from April 2013 to March 2014, 3,300 people received payments under the 1979 Act, amounting to £45.1 million; 440 people received payments under the 2008 scheme, amounting to £9.4 million. The total compensation paid out under both schemes during this period was therefore £54.5 million.
Around half of payments made under the Government’s 1979 Act scheme are for diffuse mesothelioma. I know the occurrences of diffuse mesothelioma are a particular concern of Members, with the number of deaths in Great Britain continuing to rise. It is a fatal disease caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Those diagnosed usually have a short life expectancy, generally between nine and 12 months, with the sufferer becoming severely disabled soon after diagnosis. The rise in the number of cases reflects the long latency period of the disease, which can take decades to become apparent. Latest available information suggests that deaths will continue to increase to a peak of around 2,500 in 2018 and then start to fall, reflecting a reduction in asbestos exposures following its peak use in the 1960s and 1970s.
These regulations increase the levels of support through the government compensation schemes and I am sure we all agree that while no amount of money can ever compensate individuals and families for the suffering and loss caused by this disease and the other dust-related diseases covered by the 1979 Act scheme, those who are suffering rightly deserve some form of monetary compensation. The government schemes go some way to ensuring that they receive it as soon as possible. I commend the increase of the payment scales and ask approval to implement them. I beg to move.
My Lords, I think we are all grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has introduced the regulations today. He has talked about some very significant sums of money to assist some of those who, through either pneumoconiosis or mesothelioma, have had a death sentence merely as a result of their going out to work. I commend the Government for the uprating that they have announced today.
I have some questions for the Minister. He rightly said that Members from all sides of your Lordships’ House have been anxious, first in supporting the Government in the provisions of the Mesothelioma Act last year, but also in pressing for far more resources to be made available, both to those who have been victims of mesothelioma and for the important work involved in research in finding cures and the causes of mesothelioma.
I notice that the Government say in the Explanatory Note:
“An impact assessment has not been prepared for this instrument”.
Although I realise that that is a fairly technical thing and it is not a requirement for the Government to do that in this case, I wonder if that might be reviewed for the future, with regard to such an impact statement and assessment along the lines that the Minister has just referred to. I was not certain what he meant about the year in which he said the number of mesothelioma victims was likely to peak. Perhaps he could repeat it.
It was 2018.
The year is 2018. It is very helpful to know that that is the case. That seems to differ from some of the dates that have previously been given by Ministers and in parliamentary replies.
Will the Minister assure me about continuing assessments, so that when these regulations come forward—alas, they will come forward on a regular basis—we can have much more up-to-date information about the total numbers and how the trajectory appears to be working out? I hear very different accounts from people who say that, as a result of diagnosis now being made in a different way from the past, the numbers are being assessed in different ways. Quite alarmingly, we see the incidence of mesothelioma in non-traditional groups. Those of us who have represented sufferers—through the trade union movement, in the case of some noble Lords here, or by representing constituencies, particularly in urban areas—have always been used to meeting people who worked as tunnellers or masons, or in traditional heavy industries. However, there is no doubt that there has been a significant increase in the number of people who present with the disease for no apparent reason—people who are domestic workers, who perhaps have just been at home or who work in schools, and particularly people in the Armed Forces.
It was the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, who mentioned in the House that people he had been at Dartmouth and had literally played snowballs with asbestos at that time, not realising the dangers. He mentioned the number of significant figures in the Royal Navy who had contracted mesothelioma and subsequently died. One of the things that I would specifically like to see in an impact statement would be categories of workers, such as those in the Armed Forces, for which we monitored the number of deaths from mesothelioma that were recorded so that we had a far better idea of the impact that this was having. I know that there will be particular interest from a number of those from the Armed Forces who have been following our debates. It was wonderful that the noble Lord, Lord West, along with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and others, were able to meet some of those from the Royal Navy who have contracted mesothelioma, here in your Lordships’ House just a couple of weeks ago.
The Explanatory Note also says:
“It is intended that these rates will be reviewed each year”.
Perhaps the Minister could confirm whether that will always be in accordance with the consumer prices index, as it has been on this occasion.
I shall return to a Question that I raised on the Floor of your Lordships’ House on 9 December, which was answered by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, on behalf of the Government. It touches directly on the allocation of money, and where it comes from, regarding some of the payments that are made to those who have become victims of mesothelioma. During the passage of the 2014 Act, Ministers said that the levy on the insurance industry would be set at 3%; in fact, the quote from the Minister in another place was:
“Three per cent. is 3% and we have no intention of moving away from it”.––[Official Report, Commons, Mesothelioma Public Bill Committee, 12/12/2013; col. 117.]
I asked this on 9 December and I ask it again today: why then has it been set at 2.2% when that original undertaking was given by the Government? That represents a shortfall from the insurance industry of around £11 million, so this is not a small sum of money. Although I welcome the subsequent uprating that the Government have announced in the total amounts of money that victims will be awarded under that legislation, I wonder whether there is a shortfall that still can be reclaimed from the industry and which might therefore be used to assist with the problem of research.
I moved an amendment in your Lordships’ House—I think it was defeated by a majority of about seven—which would have placed a requirement on all insurance companies to contribute to another levy to provide for mesothelioma research. I commend those insurance companies, and there are two big players, which have continued to step up to the plate to provide contributions towards research, voluntarily and without a statutory obligation to do so. They put the other companies, of which around 150 are involved, to shame but what they contribute is far from enough. It also raises the question of why more public funding is not provided to tackle the disease.
I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm a figure. The Government have previously said to me that around 50,000 to 60,000 people will die of mesothelioma over the next 20 to 30 years. The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, who is also the Government’s chief scientific adviser for health, has said:
“I hope the research community will now respond by generating new research proposals that will provide robust evidence to help people with mesothelioma”.
What I have quoted was also said by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who said:
“There needs to be a certainty that the money is there but the top-level researchers also need to be aware of it so that the money and the level of the research capability are brought together”.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, also said:
“The funding is very much there”.—[Official Report, 9/12/14; col. 1711.]
However, that seems to contrast with both the Question that I tabled in your Lordships’ House and with a letter which I have received from him.
The Question I refer to was answered as recently as 23 February where, in a table, the Government say that there have been four successful applications. One of them is “Subject to contract” and the others have been successful in coming forward to tackle mesothelioma. But then there are several applications which have been turned down, and which were for substantial sums of money. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us how this therefore accords with the idea that there are plenty of applications and that they have been sufficiently successful, because that does not seem to be the case.
In the letter that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, wrote to me on 16 December 2014, following the exchanges on the Floor of the House, he said:
“In the last five financial years, the MRC and NICR have received just over twenty applications for grants or fellowships that relate to research on mesothelioma. Of these eight applications were successful resulting in an average success rate of 40%”.
That does not seem to be a very high success rate when we are dealing with the potential loss of life of so many British people, who have contracted this disease simply as a result of going out to work.
During the debate on my Question the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, told your Lordships that his own wife had died of mesothelioma. A few days ago, along with the noble Lords, Lord Giddens and Lord Saatchi, I met the British Lung Foundation who introduced us to a brilliant young woman who is a registrar in London. She told us that she is the only person working anywhere in the world on an innovatory treatment, using adult stem cells which are targeted at mesothelioma cells. She says that that has proved extremely successful in the animal models that have been used. My heart rose when I heard that, and there are other examples that I could cite but I do not want to take up too much of your Lordships’ time today. Surely this is the sort of innovation we must encourage. During our meeting, she told us that it would take £2.5 million to move from the stage that she has reached now on to clinical trials. Again, that does not seem an outrageous sum of money in terms of what we might be able to achieve.
As a result of bringing forward these regulations today, I hope that the Minister will give us some assurances that he will return to the House—with a letter that can be sent to Members of the Committee, with further written replies to Parliamentary Questions or in Statements to the House—to tell us what progress is being made to ensure that we tackle this problem at source. Otherwise, I suspect that year after year, for the next 20 or 30 years, we will be gathering in places like the Moses Room and looking at lists of people for whom compensation is being given to deal with the effects of a disease which at the moment has no cure and which wreaks such tragedy in the lives of so many ordinary working people in the United Kingdom.
House of Lords Debate on the Safety and Legality of creating genetically modified babies: safety, legality and issues of definition and ethics – speech by David Alton
Extracts from the debate on the motion moved by Lord Deben: His speech and the full debate can be read at:
Amendment to the Motion
Moved by Lord Deben
To leave out from “that” to the end and insert “this House declines to approve the draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015 laid before the House on 17 December 2014 and calls on Her Majesty’s Government not to lay new draft regulations until a joint committee of both Houses has been established and has reported on (1) the safety of the procedures permitted by the draft regulations, (2) the compliance of the draft regulations with European Union and domestic law, and (3) the key definitions used in the draft regulations”
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend, but, given that my noble friend Lord Patel mentioned this case, perhaps I might reinforce what she is saying, because Newcastle is not offering to provide donation opportunities for women but is asking them whether they will sell their eggs, at £500 per cycle. We all know that that can lead to hyperovulation syndrome, an issue which I raised in your Lordships’ House last week and which I know concerns many of us from all sides of this argument. So there is another dimension involved in this. My noble friend Lord Patel was also right to say to my noble friend Lady O’Loan that when we debated these issues in 2009 many of us pointed to things like adult stem cells and the work being done by Professor Shinya Yamanaka. We said then that arguing for animal/human hybrids was a diversion when much more important work, like that which the noble Lord, Lord Patel, has just mentioned, could have been undertaken.
Baroness O’Loan: I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. I am not arguing against this process; I am arguing against the introduction of these regulations at this time in the absence of sufficient knowledge and protection. We have to look at the factors, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said. Being paid to donate one’s eggs constitutes a very serious issue for women who are in poverty and who will do it as a way of raising money, possibly even to look after their own children. We need to provide protection for such women
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and I agree on much of what he has been saying today. However, in 2013—just two years ago—when he spoke at the Intelligence Squared debate, he said:
“And it’s worth bearing in mind that abnormal children have been born as a result of mitochondrial transfer. This has been completely unpredictable”.
I wonder what, if anything, has happened to change his mind about that. I suspect that he and I are agreed that there obviously are dangers involved in this and safety questions that he will want to address. May I also ask him—and I will not intervene on him again—whether he agrees with what my noble friend Lord Patel said earlier about the situation in China? I have with me the document Fertility and Sterility 2003, vol. 80, published on 3 September 2003, which was written by Zhang and others, who looked at the procedure that was used in China. Although we were told that this was not cytoplasmic transfer, does he agree with my noble friend Lord Patel, or does he agree with what is here in the statement that this was a pregnancy derived from human nuclear transfer?
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Lord Patel: May I comment on that, since the noble Lord refers to me?
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I did actually ask the noble Lord, Lord Winston.
Lord Patel: I think that the noble Lord was asking him to reply to my comment. He is quite right that China has used pronuclear transfer techniques, but the disaster was upsetting to me.
Lord Winston: I am very concerned that the noble Lord, Lord Patel, might get into trouble with the Whip sitting on the Front Bench. I am always in her bad books, and I would not want to allow him to be in her bad books as well.
Let me answer the noble Lord, Lord Alton. It is true that, two years ago, I said that it was unpredictable; of course, these things are unpredictable. In the context in which I was speaking, that was correct. To be fair, however, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, knows that, with the case of Jacques Cohen in New Jersey, 17 babies were born after mitochondrial transfer. Therefore, there has been some other evidence—other than that evidence from China—that suggests that this is not quite as daft as proposed. Added to which, of course, in two years, a huge amount of research has been done by our colleagues in Newcastle. They have been working flat out on a whole range of tests which, I think, have made a very big difference. Since the statement that I made in the House, three different committees have looked at the safety.
Science does not have the truth; we have a version of the truth. We have to interpret what we can as best we can.
I deeply respect the noble Lord, Lord Alton, as he knows very well. We both come from a very strong view about what is the right thing to try to do wherever possible. However, I feel here that, apart from the issue of preserving healthy life, if we decide not to vote for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, we are doing something really important.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ribiero. Before he moves on, I want to speak to his point about adoption. Your Lordships will have seen the recent parliamentary reply on this. In the past five years, around 5,000 newborn babies have been available for adoption. That is all, compared with more than 1 million babies that have been aborted during that period. Does he not think that we should be much more interested in seeing if we can put right that imbalance?
Does he also recognise that there is a difference between the two techniques that are being offered to the House today, maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer, in that one requires the destruction of human embryos, 2 million of which have been destroyed since the original legislation was enacted in 1990, and the other does not? On the basis of what I think he believes and says, is it therefore not only more prudent but more ethical to use the technique that does not result in the destruction of human embryos?
Lord Ribeiro: It was made very clear by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and others that the need for the two techniques is to allow the HFEA to make a decision on which is the preferable technique. We have a situation at the moment where many of the embryos that are produced are discarded after the 14 days or so that are allowed. I will not go into the question of adoption. It is a matter of choice. If the family would prefer to have a child without this affliction, that is their choice, and they may not choose to go down the adoption route.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords—
Lord Maginnis of Drumglass (Ind UU): My Lords—
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB): My Lords—
Lord Taylor of Holbeach (Con): My Lords, it is a rule of this House that only one person speaks at one time. I ask noble Lords to be seated, please. We are in some difficulty. A number of noble Lords still want to speak. I understand that; this is a serious matter. Perhaps I might suggest to them that they will attract the approval of the House if they keep their remarks brief. Most noble Lords have come here with contributions to make, and they are speaking from extensive notes. It would help us all if we could move this debate to a conclusion; many noble Lords have indicated that to me. Therefore, while I do not for a moment suggest that we move to that stage now, I ask noble Lords to be orderly in allowing others to speak and to be brief.
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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful to the House. Although of course I have ethical objections to the regulations, which are well founded and have been pretty well rehearsed on previous occasions, the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, does not invite us to vote on the ethics. Therefore, accepting what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has just said to the House, I will not explore those ethical issues today but will stick to the points that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, raised earlier on, which concentrate on safety, legality and definitions. In supporting the Motion I want to address three points: procedure, pertinent questions and the specific issues posed by pronuclear transfer—one of the techniques made legal by these inappropriately combined regulations. It is worth saying in parenthesis that there is a third technique, polar body transfer, which was referred to during the discussions that the noble Earl was good enough to arrange for a group of us to have. That is being explored at this time, and will require yet more regulations to come before your Lordships’ House.
A noble Baroness: So it should.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: Yes, and so it should, as the noble Baroness says. However, why are they not being taken together, why is there a hurry, and why are we not considering them all at the same time? Some raise particular issues, and others raise different issues, so many of us find that being asked to take it or leave it today is very difficult.
Some 41 Members from all sides of the House of Commons have written to your Lordships asking us to provide the opportunity for further consideration to be given to these regulations. For 18 years I served in another place. I would have been appalled if only 90 minutes had been provided during my time there, when we discussed in 1990 the original legislation or subsequent changes to it—90 minutes on unamendable regulations. Half the House of Commons—300 compared with 350—either voted against or abstained: 128 voted against, 172 abstained, and 300 voted for. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, said to us earlier on, the Lord Chancellor—and we have heard from an eminent and very learned noble Lord today, a former Lord Chancellor—and the Attorney-General both voted against the regulations. Subsequently, we have received representations from 50 Members of the European Parliament—I say to my noble friend Lord Walton that they were not all Roman Catholics—including Socialists, Christian Democrats, Communists, Greens and others, and internationally respected scientists, challenging the safety and the legality of what we are being asked to approve. Last week Professor Christopher Exley, a British scientist, described these procedures as,
“a genetic experiment which could have disastrous consequences for generations”.
That is not a religious view. This requires us to take the moderated view that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle commended to us earlier on. Yet, procedures permitted only a 90-minute debate in the Commons on an unamendable order, and if it were not for the noble Lord, Lord Deben, today, we would not have the opportunity to be discussing these complex questions—
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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton (Lab): As a point of fact—and I hope that the government Chief Whip will agree with me—we would have debated this order in this Chamber under the normal procedures of this House with or without the amendment that was put down, because that is the practice of this House. I can see the government Chief Whip nodding and the noble Baroness who chairs the Delegated Powers Committee agreeing.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I am glad to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, has said to us today. It is important that it should be on the Floor of this House, therefore we are all agreed. I contrast the 90 minutes given to the House of Commons to discuss this with the 90 hours that Parliament spent discussing fox hunting. I ask noble Lords to contrast those things. We are required to show due diligence and scrutiny, especially over controversial legislation.
It is not just the absence of the preclinical tests recommended by the HFEA that suggests that the cart has been placed before the horse, but the disingenuous decision by the clinic promoting these regulations—even before your Lordships have debated, let alone approved, these regulations—to offer women money, as we heard from my noble friend Lady O’Loan earlier on, to sell their eggs for these procedures, a practice which itself can be injurious to their health, while telling us:
“It was never about politicians voting on whether it was safe or not”.
That seems almost a contempt of Parliament, and is certainly an extraordinary dismissal of health and safety considerations, which everyone has admitted this afternoon are a consequence of what we are being asked to agree. We have a duty to satisfy ourselves about questions of public safety.
I have experienced this afternoon something of a sense of déjà vu on the arguments, which are so reminiscent of those which persuaded your Lordships to vote for animal/human hybrid embryos in 2007. Although my noble friend Lord Patel, who I think is about to intervene on me again, said earlier on that there was a significant breakthrough by Professor Shinya Yamanaka just two weeks after the Bill passed, that is not entirely accurate. The Yamanaka breakthrough came in 2006 in the journal Cell, not after the Bill passed but before it was even published. If you look back at the Hansard, as I hope Members will, I argued repeatedly that the proposal was redundant because of the Yamanaka breakthrough and that we should not have voted for it. However, despite the Yamanaka breakthrough, many argued that animal/human hybrid embryos were necessary.
Before we rush pell-mell into authorising something which the rest of the world—from the federal agency in the United States to the People’s Republic of China—has prohibited, may I ask the Minister to answer some pertinent questions? First, what regard has he had to the increasing demand for women to give up their eggs for these techniques, the failure of the HFEA to monitor the drugs and dosages used for ovarian stimulation, and published data by Newcastle indicating an incidence of hospitalisation due to such stimulation due to the
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frequent collection of more than 20 eggs per cycle? Does he regard it as ethical to ask women to sell their eggs for £500?
Secondly, what is the cost of these regulations, both human and financial, when pronuclear transfer—the second of the procedures that have been referred to— requires the destruction of at least two and in some cases 10 healthy embryos for every procedure? Contrast the financial cost, too, of an issue I have raised regularly on the Floor of your Lordships’ House; namely, the failure to provide vital and much needed public funding into finding a cure for diseases such as mesothelioma, which will take the lives of 60,000 British people in the next 30 years.
Thirdly, and more specifically, why have the Government not waited for the outcome of the HFEA’s recommended preclinical experiments before proceeding? Fourthly, like noble Lords today, Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, said at a meeting that I attended with the noble Earl:
“No one will guarantee that it is safe”.
That being so, and given the absence of safety trials, how much has the National Health Service set aside for compensation if safety fears are realised? One recent payment to the parents of a baby damaged at a hospital reached a staggering £10 million.
Finally, I turn to the specific issue of pronuclear transfer. These regulations have bundled together two different procedures. As I said, pronuclear transfer—PNT—unlike maternal spindle transfer, requires the destruction of human embryos. It is a technique that has been specifically advocated by researchers at Newcastle. To date, most applications of this technique have been in mice. However, the Weatherall report of 2006, sponsored by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, on page 85 stated the following:
“Humans and non-human primates share many features of reproductive biology that are not present in other mammals … Hence, rodents and other non-human primates have only limited usefulness as models of human reproductive physiology”.
Consistent with this, the report of the HFEA’s expert panel in April 2011 said that before the technique could be considered safe to use clinically, it was critical to undertake,
“PNT in a non-human primate model, with the demonstration that the offspring derived are normal”.
Has this been done? Nearly four years later, the answer is still no—even though most postgraduate researchers would have already completed a doctorate within this timeframe.
Strikingly, a news article for the journal Nature stated on 19 January 2012:
“The Newcastle researchers do not have plans to determine whether primates conceived through pronuclear transfer come to term and are healthy”.
Remarkably, the HFEA’s expert panel then changed its mind about preclinical experimentation in primates being critical for pronuclear transfer, in its ensuing report in 2013. The only explanation provided was exceptionally brief and far from compelling. It said that:
“Current research using PNT in Macaques has yet to be shown to be successful. From unpublished data it appears that Macaque zygotes do not survive the PNT process well”.
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The panel now believes that the macaque may not be a sufficiently good model for the human. If macaque embryos do not have a good record of surviving pronuclear transfer, and human eggs are even more sensitive, are not problems with human embryos more likely? Surely this suggests the need for proceeding even more cautiously, not less.
The Joint Committee proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, should reflect on the HFEA expert panel’s minutes of 12 February 2013, in which Dr Dieter Egli, of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, explains that he was,
“sceptical about the clinical application of PNT”,
because a structure known as the centrosome may be left behind, and that,
“the consequences of this need to be investigated”.
The proposed Joint Committee should also consider the minutes of the HFEA teleconference with Dr Shoukhrat Mitalipov on 30 January 2013, which reported:
“Dr Mitalipov expressed the view that development of MST or PNT embryos to blastocyst was not in itself enough to give confidence that the techniques are safe and effective”,
and the recent remarks of Professor Justin St John, a geneticist at Monash University in Australia with considerable expertise on the behaviour of mitochondria in nuclear transfer, who said:
“As well as analysing foetal development in a non-human primate model, it is essential to analyse offspring to determine that no abnormalities appear at least during early life”.
Not only have the researchers at Newcastle refused to perform such preclinical research in non-human primates, I have been unable to find evidence of their own prior experience in obtaining healthy offspring of any species following pronuclear transfer, or even in taking any such embryos past the blastocyst stage.
Lord Willis of Knaresborough: Clearly, I am not going to get to speak this evening, so I ask the noble Lord a very simple question. Does he have any faith at all in the HFEA to do what it actually says on this tin? If the regulations are passed today it will then have the job of deciding when it will be safe to go ahead and grant a licence. If he does not have that faith in the HFEA, will he please say that? Because I do.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I serve on my own university’s ethics committee, which looks at the use of animals in experiments. Apparently, one of my roles on that committee is to be, as it were, the animals’ friend and to ask whether the experiment is repetitive, whether it is necessary to do such things and to what it is going to lead. There is no one on the HFEA who is the friend of the human embryo. That is a bizarre situation and one I would like to see rectified. But to take the noble Lord at his word, of course I think the HFEA often does a good job, and I admire many of its members.
I will simply say one other thing to the noble Lord. The HFEA is a regulator, not a legislator. That is our duty here today and that is why we are having this discussion. I am conscious that others wish to intervene and I am grateful for the patience of your Lordships’ House in allowing me to put these points. As we ponder on these serious issues revolving around public safety and questions of definition and legality, they deserve far better consideration and scrutiny than has
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been provided thus far. Surely we should remember the wise advice that those who legislate in haste repent at leisure. Therefore, the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, for a Joint Committee of both Houses to examine the safety and legality of these regulations deserves our support.
Baroness Barker (LD):
I like the fact that I live in the United Kingdom where we debate these matters. We have the involvement of people from the church and from different faiths and walks of life. We also listen to contributions from people such as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who are consistently and wholly opposed to this issue. However, it is important that his voice is heard. I do not want the ethical decisions to be sent off to the courts as they are in the United States.
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The scientists have been absolutely straight with us and have given us the relevant information. They have not said that this process is safe or guaranteed because they cannot do so. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is right—they will have to come back to us if techniques developed in the future prove to be better and safer than those we are discussing. However, given the information that we have, I for one feel that this Parliament has been fully informed and that we can make a decision—and I hope that we do.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): My Lords, I sense that the House wants to come to a decision.
Just over 14 years ago, I asked the House to agree that embryology research could be extended to cover diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and diabetes. This provision had been anticipated and included as a regulation-making power in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which had allowed embryology research but only for conditions such as infertility and congenital diseases.
The 2001 regulations were passed following a Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to whom I pay tribute for his integrity and perseverance. However, his Motion to establish a Select Committee prior to the regulations being approved was defeated by 212 votes to 92.
Division on Lord Deben’s amendment
Contents 48; Not-Contents 280.
Full debate at:
Liverpool: A Commonwealth City – what the Commonwealth stands for in the modern world and why the promotion of education should be one of its central concerns.
The Commonwealth Today: At Talk Given at Liverpool John Moores University – February 12th 2015.
David Alton (Lord Alton of Liverpool)
The main thrust of my remarks this evening will centre on the opportunities which the Commonwealth offers to the City of Liverpool and especially to its universities; and why we should designate Liverpool as “A Commonwealth City.”
As the Romans divided Gaul into three provinces, I will divide my remarks into three parts:
- What the Commonwealth stands for in the modern world;
- What the declaration of Liverpool as a Commonwealth City might offer us; and
- What is the special role of the Commonwealth in promoting education?
By way of preamble, not long after I went to Westminster, some 36 years ago, I joined the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and have been a member ever since. Worldwide it has 16,000 members.
I was subsequently invited to become Chairman of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, and for some years I served in that capacity.
I have travelled in many Commonwealth countries and, among speakers for the Roscoe Lecture series, which I host and moderate for Liverpool John Moores University, have been the former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Don McKinnon, who says “The Commonwealth is a pretty good investment for Britain but it has not always used it best.”
In that Roscoe Lecture Sir Donald saw the Commonwealth, and so do I, as a unique organisation which seeks to entrench a genuine culture of democracy and interdependence in a fragmented and increasingly dangerous and intolerant world.
So I’m a fan – but is this about more than motherhood and apple pie?
Turning to those three provinces of Gaul:
- What the Commonwealth stands for in the modern world
Let’s be clear about what the Commonwealth is and what it isn’t.
It isn’t a voting bloc of nations – like “the Communist bloc” of yore – a geographical bloc like the African Union – a militarised bloc – like NATO or the Warsaw Pact – a trading organisation like ASEAN – or a legislative body like the European Union. Nor is it a mini United Nations.
Perhaps the nearest parallel is with the Council of Europe, Europe’s oldest intergovernmental organisation, covering some 820 million citizens and is an advisory international organisation promoting co-operation between European countries and working to uphold human rights.
Inevitably, the Commonwealth’s identity is shaped by shared history, friendship, and an increasing understanding that blocs have their limitations – and produce their own strait-jackets – whereas looser networks can often produce innovative and more interesting relationships and opportunities.
As we commemorate the First and Second World Wars we should never forget the willingness of Commonwealth combatants to give their lives in defence of our freedom. In the Great War there were 1.5 million Indian volunteers alone.
If, to try and avoid such conflicts, you believe in “soft power” – and I do – or smart power as I prefer to call it – then you will surely conclude that the Commonwealth, the British Council and the BBC World Service, are three of the best ways of delivering it.
And if you believe in “development power” – as the best antidote to the illiterate barbarism and determined uniformity of groups like Daa’sh – ISIL – or Boko Haram and the rest – then it must be right to focus our now ring-fenced 0.7% commitment of overseas aid (90% of which is development aid) than through the Commonwealth – where 800 million live in official poverty? In 2014 we allocated around £2 billion for development projects in Commonwealth countries.
The virtue and point of a global organisation, in a world where communications and travel have never been easier but also where we face global challenges – from climate and environmental degradation to grinding poverty and health pandemics – is self-evident. Although, as Sir Donald McKinnon reminded us, we have not always used it for the best.
Today, some 53 independent and sovereign states comprise this voluntary organisation par excellence. Some 2.2 billion people live in the Commonwealth, 60% are under the age of 30.
The Commonwealth spans five regions and is diverse in a world where Jihadists and totalitarian regimes seek to impose a brutal uniformity. It has a combined GDP of £5.2 trillion.
It is not a rich man’s club and includes some of the poorest as well as richest nations; some of the fastest growing economies; some of the most populous; and some – its island states – of the most sparse and remote. From micro-states in Polynesia to members of the G8, the Commonwealth straddles north and south, east and west, linking nations and people throughout the world.
The Commonwealth also unites nations which hold divergent religious and secular beliefs – and in a world riven by communal hatred, suspicion, fear and intolerance, what a wonderful house it is that can provide a home for the dignity of difference.
Today’s rising generations place so much emphasis on social networking and interconnectedness. With its 80 intergovernmental civil society, cultural and professional organisations, the Commonwealth knows a thing or two about networking and interconnectedness.
Comprising over a third of the world’s population, the Commonwealth has a fascinating past, but is not a museum, it is a model which could offer the world a more hopeful future.
But just what hope does it hold out for us; for what does the Commonwealth stand?
Look at its Charter.
In a year that we celebrate landmark historic anniversaries – the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the 750th anniversary of the barons meeting at the first Parliament in Westminster, and the fiftieth anniversary of the State Funeral of Winston Churchill – it is worth recalling that it is only two years since this 66 year old forward looking organisation set out its core values in its formal Charter.
In a single and highly accessible document the Charter draws together the values and aspirations which unite the Commonwealth – democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
It is said that President Nasser of Egypt once said to Prime Minister Nehru of India “I put my extremists in prison. What do you do with yours?” Nehru replied “I put mine in Parliament”. His were the values of the Commonwealth.
The Charter commits its members to upholding democracy; human rights; peace and security; tolerance, respect and understanding; freedom of expression; separation of powers; rule of law; good governance; sustainable development; environmental protection; access to health, education, food and shelter; gender equality; and the importance of young people and civil society.
Clearly, not all Commonwealth countries have turned the rhetoric into a reality but by agreeing them it enables levels of mutual accountability which are not based on imperialism but on shared aspirations.
At a practical level, having officially observed over seventy elections, and having been willing to suspend membership – in the case of countries like Zimbabwe or Fiji – and see the withdrawal of countries like Pakistan and South Africa – for reasons ranging from military coups to racism – the Commonwealth has made clear what it stands for.
It is significant that many of those countries, subsequently sought readmission – and even formerly Francophone countries like Rwanda, with no historic link to the UK, have become members. Clearly, those countries see the Commonwealth as a strong and respected voice in the world, speaking out on major issues; and proactively strengthening and enlarging its networks. It also says a great deal about this country’s most important export: its language.
The Charter affirms that a special strength of the Commonwealth lies in its combination of diversity and shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law; being bound together by shared history and tradition; by a respect for all states and peoples; by shared values and principles and by concern for the vulnerable,
In a nutshell, the case for the Commonwealth is grounded in its ability to be a compelling and effective force for good – a good deed in a pretty nasty world – and to be a non-threatening place and network where we can promote development and progress.
So what relevance does any of this have for the city of Liverpool?
- What might the declaration of Liverpool as a Commonwealth City might offer us?
I was delighted to hear that Edward Harcourt, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, who invited me to give this lecture, and Cllr. Richard Kemp of Liverpool city Council – had been talking about how Liverpool could take a more active role in promoting commonwealth links.
I first met Richard 43 years ago when he asked me to speak at a political meeting for other young people in a room over a pub in Leyland. I made no apology then, and do not do so this evening, for saying I love my country but believe we, as a maritime nation, are called to have an internationalist vision and to join forced with like-minded nations in upholding shared values.
It is why, as a boy I joined the Anti-Apartheid movement, why I argued for membership of the Common Market, why I helped found charities like Jubilee Campaign, and why I chair parliamentary committees like the All Party Group on North Korea.
The United Kingdom is at its best when it is outward looking and at its worst when it becomes narrow or xenophobic: the same is equally true of what once called the Second City of the Empire, the Gateway to America and arguably the world’s first global city – the City of Liverpool.
Liverpool has grown into a global city because of the people who have settled here or passed through it – and rightly describes itself as the whole world in one city. Equally it is the whole Commonwealth in one city.
Liverpool’s historic role and status as a maritime centre and port city has contributed to its diverse population – drawn from a wide range of peoples, nations, cultures, and faiths. Home to the oldest Black African community in the UK it is home, too, to Europe’s oldest Chinese community.
Granted its Borough Charter in 1207, in the ninth year of the reign of King John, Liverpool formally became a city in 1880 – although the urbanisation of the late 18th century had already transformed it – with expansion driven on through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. By the beginning of the 19th century 40% of the world’s trade passed through Liverpool’s docks and at times its wealth exceed even that of London.
Any visitor to the city’s Maritime Museum quickly realises that two dark shadows hang over the history of Liverpool – the slave trade and the Irish famine.
In 1847 Dr.Duncan, the city’s pioneering Public Health Officer recorded over a thousand fatalities among Irish people fleeing the famine and there were an estimated 20,000 street children with 100,000 people living in abject poverty. In 1868 48,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 attended no school.
Our link with a tragedy that cost Ireland 1 million lives is written in the city’s DNA but in Africa Liverpool is remembered as the engine room of the slave trade.
In 1807 the year in which William Wilberforce succeeded in abolishing the trans-Atlantic trade, there were four million people in slavery worldwide. He was assisted by the Liverpool slave trader, John Newton – later of Amazing Grace fame – who published his influential pamphlet “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade” and gave evidence in Parliament about the horrors and cruelties in which he had been involved. With Newton stands the remarkable William Roscoe.
Notably, during his three months as a Member of the House of Commons, Liverpool’s William Roscoe, one of the founders of the college which evolved into this University, voted against the slave trade and spent the rest of his life championing the oppressed, promoting education, and developing the city’s culture and civic institutions. In Parliament, Roscoe said “I consider it the greatest happiness of my existence to lift up my voice on this occasion with the friends of justice and humanity.” In his epic poem, “The Wrongs of Africa” he warned his countrymen: “Forget not Britain, higher still than thee, sits the great judge of nations, who can weigh the wrong and can repay.”
Almost 200 years later, at the turn of this Millennium, I took a Declaration from Liverpool to West Africa – expressing the city’s “sense of remorse” over the effects of the slave trade “on countless millions of people” and the City Council’s unanimous decision to “co-ordinate the use of all its powers to foster better race relations, greater equality of opportunities and even greater diversity.”
So, it’s important to know your history but not to become trapped in or to become prisoners of your own history. The Chinese calligraphy for crisis can also be read as opportunity. Perhaps that’s the spirit in which we need to view our history and the opportunity which the Commonwealth offers us.
As a British-Irish city it would be wonderful if we could play some part in encouraging Ireland to re-join the Commonwealth. It was excluded in 1949 when it became a Republic, although one year later the rules were changed to enable India to remain a member.
10% of British people have a grandparent or parent of Irish descent – as I do myself. I have British and Irish passports, as my children do. And our links are not only through blood. Britain’s biggest export destination in the European Union is Ireland.
But our relationships have been disfigured by centuries of violence. Last year saw a further healing of our shared history when President Michael D. Higgins returned the State Visit of Her Majesty the Queen and she entertained Martin McGuinness at Windsor Castle.
It is, of course, entirely a matter for the Irish Government but people need to put out a welcome mat and what a message it would send to divided societies the world over.
But if Liverpool saw itself as a Commonwealth City it could do much more than that.
In 2002 the Manchester Commonwealth Games generated more than £2 billion; last year’s Glasgow Games drew in more than 6,500 athletes and officials in 17 sports and a global audience of around 1.5 billion people. With its reputation for sporting excellence Liverpool can learn from those experiences; but its reputation goes much wider than this.
Since 2004 much of the city’s waterfront has had World Heritage status and its economy also continues to give it international, world status. The Post-Panamaz container terminal extension will berth some of the world’s biggest container vessels – doubling the Port’s container capacity from 700,000 containers each year to 2 million by 2020. The new cruise liner terminal, situated close to the city centre and Liverpool One and wonderful facilities, such as the Echo Arena, and some fine hotels, once again makes Liverpool a city which can generate visitors, conferences, opportunities. Since its 2008 designation as European Capital of Culture – which through overnight visitors generated £188 million into the local economy – tourism has been estimated to be worth over £1 billion a year to the city.
Yet, what is there in Liverpool that specifically celebrates the Commonwealth or seeks to promote and deepen our links to Commonwealth countries and Commonwealth cities?
Among the exhibits at the Museum of Liverpool is the cotton brokers’ ring which was the first purpose built stand of its kind in England and was made in 1906.
Liverpool’s Cotton Exchange directly tapped into world markets with countries like India. Today, with a quarter of the world’s population, 20% of the world’s trade and thousands of listed companies, and the English language, the Commonwealth offers unsurpassed opportunities to a city like Liverpool – and we should seize the opportunity with enthusiasm.
The cotton brokers’ ring might be an appropriate symbol to promote the ring of friendships, shared experiences, and business opportunities which the Commonwealth could offer Liverpool today. One of the greatest of those opportunities is represented by education.
- What is the special role of the Commonwealth in promoting education?
Liverpool has three fine universities – home to more than 50,000 students – along with its wonderful School of Tropical Medicine, of which I am a Vice President.
Founded in 1881 by William Rathbone, Liverpool University has some 21,000 students pursuing over 450 programmes spanning 54 subject areas; LJMU traces its foundation to 1823, is the biggest of the three (the twentieth largest in the UK), with more than 24,000 students, including 4,270 postgraduate students; while Liverpool Hope, the only ecumenical university in Europe, home to 7,885 students.
The Liverpool School of Tropical medicine, situated in the Ward and the Constituencies which I represented, was established in 1898 and became the first institution in the world dedicated to research and teaching in tropical medicine.
With a research portfolio of £220 million it has established a global reputation – not least thanks to the significant support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Welcome Trust and DFID.
LSTM has partnerships and projects operating in over 70 countries – many of them Commonwealth countries – and offers a range of postgraduate education programmes, teaching over 600 students from around the world.
In parenthesis I might say that when I travel to some of the countries from which Liverpool and the UK draws international students, one question is always raised:
“Why does the UK insist on a visa system which is so hostile to students entering the UK?”
It’s a question which, in turn, I ask the Government and have yet to receive a satisfactory reply. I am also disappointed by a retrenchment on commonwealth scholarships. It is worth noting that in his youth the Canadian Governor or the Bank of England, was the beneficiary of a Commonwealth Scholarship.
However, for the first time in decades the number of international students has declined – most notably from India. Is it any wonder, then, that despite 250 years of trading with India, Switzerland is now said to have more trade with India than we do. These things feed into one another and this is incredibly short-sighted.
While I served as Chairman of the Council for education in the Commonwealth I was equally critical of the decision to reduce funding for students from the poorest Commonwealth countries.
All of this, notwithstanding, whether in its undergraduates or post graduates Liverpool should truly see itself as a City of Learning. It should not lose the reputation of its former colleges – such as, St. Katherine’s, Notre Dame and Christ’s – as some of the best Colleges of Education in Britain for the formation of teachers. Take the example of Malaysia.
In 1953, despite a sometimes tortured relationship with the UK, Malaysia joined and remains a member of the Commonwealth.
In those days many Malaysian teachers were trained here at Kirkby Teacher Training College, which closed in 1962.
Today the traditions of the college are incorporated in Liverpool John Moores. The university also has a significant presence, a regional office and graduations in Kuala Lumpur and a thriving cohort among its overseas students, studying in Liverpool. Many of those trained here have run Malaysia’s schools and colleges – cherishing the values they embraced.
Take two other Commonwealth countries: Nigeria and Pakistan.
In Nigeria Boko Haram – which means eradicate western education – routinely murders students and abducts girls and young women to prevent them receiving an education. In Pakistan the Taliban shoot girls like Malala Yousafzai for seeking an education.
They and Boko Haram fear what Malala stands for and summed up in her phrase: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
Elsewhere, especially in Africa – home to so many Commonwealth countries – the streets are awash with orphans – some of the 150 million in the world. Uganda has nearly 3 million – with 1 million orphaned by AIDS.
The AIDS pandemic, conflict – represented at its most graphic at the genocide sites I have visited in Rwanda – urban drift to the shanti towns I have seen first-hand in places, like Kibera, where people live in utter squalor and earn an average of less than $1 a day, human trafficking and corruption, all provide fertile breeding grounds for Jihadists and violent organisations.
The antidote to this will always be education. As the son of an immigrant whose first language wasn’t English, born into a home without inside sanitation, and who had no-one on either side of the family who had ever entered higher education, I know this to be emphatically true. But don’t take it from me.
Nelson Mandela, incarcerated for 27 years, would become an inspirational Commonwealth leader, the embodiment of reconciliation, forgiveness and true nobility. He said of the Commonwealth, which played such an important role in the ending of apartheid:
‘The Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity’.
As an orphan himself he insisted:
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children…We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”
And he also said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”
Is this not a challenge which we might embrace?
On a visit to Kenya, to open a school house for blind children, I was struck by the slogan which the children had chosen to hang over the door: “Give us only opportunity, not sympathy.”
On another occasion, in another part of Kenya, in the remote region of Turkana, I saw ways in which new educational opportunities are opening up. In a large hut in the centre of a compound, solar energy was helping to power internet links and several students were gathered around screens soaking up an education.
The Commonwealth has recognised this through the Commonwealth of Learning – an intergovernmental organisation created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies. Headquartered in Canada it is an exciting initiative helping developing nations improve access to quality education and training.
Its strategic goals are quality education for all Commonwealth citizens; human resource development in the Commonwealth; and the harnessing technology to achieve development goals.
COL has been the catalyst for initiative and projects such as the Open University of Tanzania; a medical education network in Malaysia; and a media centre for Asia based in New Delhi. Its focus has included open schooling, teacher education, a virtual university for small states; technical and vocational skills; life-long learning for farmers; and opportunities for women and resource poor communities.
Is this not one of many opportunities for our Liverpool universities and our educationalists: for our city? I wonder how many of our city’s schools are linked to the Commonwealth class project, in which the British Council and BBC have played a leading role, and which is promoting Commonwealth identity to seven to 14 year olds by linking no fewer than 100,000 Commonwealth schools on line?
Designating the city as a Commonwealth City and backing it up with political and civic commitment, in partnership with key institutions, entrepreneurs and commerce, with some achievable practical objectives and projects, would be good for Liverpool and good for those with whom we engage. We could make a start by flying the Commonwealth flag from the Town Hall and public buildings on Commonwealth Day – celebrated on the second Monday of March.
At the outset, I said that like the Romans, I would divide my version of Gaul into three parts:
What the Commonwealth stands for in the modern world;
What the declaration of Liverpool as a Commonwealth City might offer us; and
What is the special role of the Commonwealth in promoting education?
I don’t know that I have done justice to these themes but I know that I am not among those who dismiss the Commonwealth of little importance – a relic which fosters delusions of British influence on the world’s stage. Quite the reverse.
This country and the Commonwealth can be a compelling and dynamic force for good in the world – and in among the surge in demands for human rights, for law based societies, for democracy, and as we face changing economic circumstances, global uncertainty, new threats to peace, stability, diversity and the environment, and changing patterns of trade and economics, I know that we need more networks and organisations like the Commonwealth – not fewer.
David Alton –Lord Alton of Liverpool – is Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University and Director of the university’s Roscoe Foundation for Citizenship.
University Details: Roscoe Foundation for Citizenship, Liverpool John Moores University, 0151 231 3852.
To listen to a Roscoe Lecture: visit http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/roscoe/
Questions asked by David Alton :
Baroness Northover, the Department for International Development, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4385):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government when officials from the Department for International Development, the European Union or United Nations agencies last had access to conflict areas of South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur; how many displaced people are estimated to be located in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains; and how many refugees and people displaced by conflict in the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan are estimated to be in camps inside and outside these countries. (HL4385)
Tabled on: 23 January 2015
Answer: Baroness Northover:
United Nations agencies operate in all five states of Darfur and Government held areas of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. DFID and ECHO travel regularly to these states (with the exception of South Kordofan) to monitor programmes. The Government routinely denies humanitarian access to areas of active conflict where needs are often greatest. Humanitarian access from Sudan to opposition held areas of Blue Nile and South Kordofan has been blocked by the Government since 2012.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are 3.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sudan, 1,470,000 of these live in IDP camps in Darfur. There are 540,000 IDPs in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains, with a fifth of these living in non-government controlled areas. There are an estimated 625,000 Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries. In South Sudan, there are around 1.5 million IDPs and 500,000 South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries, including 120,000 in Sudan
Date and time of answer: 03 Feb 2015 at 15:27.
Baroness Northover, the Department for International Development, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4386):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many children living in Sudanese internally displaced persons (IDP) camps are estimated to be receiving education; how many schools are known to be occupied by armed militias or IDPs; what reports they have received of forced marriage, rape, and gender-based violence in camps such as Maban refugee camp; what access women in those camps have to medical services and psychosocial support; and how many pregnant women are estimated by the United Nations Population Fund to be in need of urgent care, and to be at risk of dying because of complications, respectively. (HL4386)
Tabled on: 23 January 2015
Answer: Baroness Northover:
According to OCHA, less than 60 per cent of children in almost two thirds of localities in Darfur have access to basic education. Over half of all primary school aged girls in West Darfur and 45 per cent in South Darfur do not attend school. In Sudan, the UK supports education projects through the Common Humanitarian Fund. In 2013-14, CHF funded projects reached 223,000 people across Sudan, the majority of which were children in conflict affected areas of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Recent insecurity and displacement in both Sudan and South Sudan have led to a further increase in women’s vulnerability and risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) although there is a poor reporting of incidents. In Maban refugee camp in South Sudan, there were 316 SGBV incidents reported in 2014. Domestic violence remains the most widespread type of incident in the camp, accounting for 59% of all reported cases, followed by forced marriage (11%), rape (9%) and attempted rape (5%). Women in Maban refugee camp access SGBV prevention and response services including counselling, case management and psychosocial support. The UK supports the provision of these services through the UNHCR.
UNFPA estimates that around 44,211 women in IDP camps in Darfur are pregnant and in need of safe motherhood services. An estimated 6,632 pregnant women are expected to develop a potentially life-threatening complication during pregnancy or at the time of delivery, and may require a Caesarean section.
Date and time of answer: 03 Feb 2015 at 15:26.
Baroness Northover, the Department for International Development, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4406):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many (1) cases, and (2) deaths, in Sudanese refugee camps have been reported by the World Health Organisation of (a) cholera, (b) malaria, (c) malnutrition, and (d) diarrhoeal diseases; how many people have been killed by violence since December 2013 in Sudan and South Sudan; how many people living in areas of conflict in Sudan and South Sudan are projected to be in crisis or emergency phases of food insecurity; how many are estimated to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance; and what percentage of internally displaced persons are estimated to live in flood-prone areas. (HL4406)
Tabled on: 26 January 2015
Answer: Baroness Northover:
There is no official figure for how many people have been killed by violence in Sudan and South Sudan. In South Sudan, the International Crisis Group (ICG), estimates that at least 50,000 people have been killed since conflict broke out in December 2013.
The UN currently estimates that 5.4 million people need humanitarian assistance in Sudan in 2015. In South Sudan it is projected that 2.5 million conflict affected people will be in crisis or emergency phases of food insecurity during January to March 2015.
In Sudan, 871,160 IDPs live in flood-prone areas, constituting 28% of the total IDP population.
Date and time of answer: 03 Feb 2015 at 15:25.
Lord Bates, the Home Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4384):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the reply by Baroness Northover on 13 January (HL Deb, col 652) and the Written Answer by Lord Bates on 21 January (HL4111) what is the difference between the 3,800 “Syrian nationals and their dependents” to whom they say they have given sanctuary and the 90 people whom they say were relocated to the United Kingdom under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme; what is meant by the phrase “given sanctuary”; how many of those given sanctuary were invited to the United Kingdom; how many came under their own steam; how many of the 3,800 Syrians have been given asylum or granted re-settlement; how many arrived in the United Kingdom before the present disturbances; and how many refugees in the United Kingdom are from Iraq or other parts of the Middle East region. (HL4384)
Tabled on: 23 January 2015
Answer: Lord Bates:
The latest published figures show that between April 2011 and the end of September 2014, a total of 3,468 Syrians were granted protection in the United Kingdom. This number represents those people who have claimed asylum in the United Kingdom, and includes those who have left Syria since the onset of the crisis, as well as those already residing in the United Kingdom who are unable to return safely. It is not possible to break the data down further to show how many people have arrived in the UK since the onset of the crisis, as opposed to those who were already residing in the UK.
The 90 people who were relocated under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS) between March 2014 and end of September 2014 are in addition to the number quoted above. Potential beneficiaries of the scheme are referred to us from Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt by UNHCR on the basis of vulnerability.
The next set of asylum and VPRS statistics will be published on 26 February.
The phrase ‘given sanctuary’ is defined as those given protection by the United Kingdom. The table below shows the number of people from the Middle East who have been granted a form of protection or other leave after claiming asylum in the UK. It includes those granted asylum, discretionary leave, humanitarian protection, as well as other grants outside these three categories. The data also include dependents.
Q2 2011 – Q3 2014
Saudi Arabia 35
Date and time of answer: 05 Feb 2015 at 14:08.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4439):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on human rights and religious liberties of Burma’s new Religious Conversion Bill and of other new bills in that country aimed at the protection of race and religion and which focus on restricting inter-faith marriage, monogamy and population control; and what representations they have made to the government of Burma on the matter. (HL4439)
Tabled on: 27 January 2015
Answer: Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
Restrictions on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and population growth are currently being debated in the Burmese parliament. We are concerned that, if enacted, these laws could harm religious tolerance and respect for diversity in Burma, and contravene international standards and treaties to which Burma is a signatory.
We have voiced our concerns over this proposed legislation to members of the Burmese government and to Burmese parliamentarians. Most recently, Minister of State at the Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), raised the issue when she met Deputy Foreign Minister Thant Kyaw during her visit to Burma in January. The UK also endorsed a statement issued by EU Heads of Mission in Rangoon in January reiterating those concerns and calling on the Burmese government and parliament to ensure that all new legislation is fully compliant with Burma’s international human rights obligations. We will continue to raise this issue in our dealings with the Burmese authorities, both in public and in private.
Date and time of answer: 05 Feb 2015 at 15:23.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4407):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report and recommendations of the All Party Group for Sudan and South Sudan, launched on 21 January, “Bridging the Gaps: Lessons from International Engagement with South Sudan 2011–2014″. (HL4407)
Tabled on: 26 January 2015
Answer: Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
We welcome the All Party Group’s report on South Sudan as a valuable and thorough contribution on an important subject. Officials are studying the detailed recommendations. Our most immediate priority remains securing peace and the formation of an inclusive transitional government that is willing to address long-term issues, and – supported by the international community – to engage widely, deeply and consistently with the people of South Sudan.
Date and time of answer: 02 Feb 2015 at 16:27.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4408):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of (1) violence in Sudan and South Sudan over the past three months, (2) reports of aerial bombardment of civilian populations, (3) the provision of arms, (4) the number of children recruited into militias, (5) the report by the United Nations Security Council of crimes committed against children, and (6) the number of unaccompanied and separated children identified by UNICEF since the conflict began. (HL4408)
Tabled on: 26 January 2015
Answer: Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
Since the end of the rainy season we have noted an increase in fighting in both Sudan and South Sudan. We are deeply concerned at aerial bombings in the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Blue Nile) of Sudan, and have condemned the recent attack on a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres. Recent evidence of violations of the UN arms embargo in Darfur will inform our approach to upcoming discussions on the renewal of the mandate for the sanctions regime. EU arms embargoes continue to remain in place on both countries.
Children continue to be seriously affected by the conflicts in both countries, and we are particularly concerned by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013 almost 7,000 children have been separated from their families and 12,000 used by armed groups in South Sudan alone. South Sudan attended the UK-led roundtable on Children and Armed Conflict in New York in September 2014, and we agree with the Secretary General’s recommendation in his report of 11 December 2014 that the Government of South Sudan should develop and implement a strategy for the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of children. As we highlighted in last year’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Human Rights Report, the Government of Sudan is also yet to fully implement their Child Act (enacted in 2010), which prohibits recruitment of children to armed groups in Darfur and the Two Areas.
Date and time of answer: 02 Feb 2015 at 16:23.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4409):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report of the assassination of a number of professors from the University of Mosul because of their opposition to Daash. (HL4409)
Tabled on: 26 January 2015
Answer: Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
We are aware of reports that the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has killed a number of professors from Mosul University. We are horrified by the atrocities that ISIL continues to commit and strongly condemn all abuses and human rights violations. We continue to encourage the new Iraqi government to ensure the protection of all citizens, promote human rights, reassert the rule of law and bring to justice those responsible for all violations and abuses. The UK is committed to a comprehensive, long-term strategy, as part of a global coalition, to degrade and defeat ISIL.
Date and time of answer: 02 Feb 2015 at 16:22.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL4410):
Question: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of India about the reported killings in 2014 of Christians and reported assaults on priests, pastors and leaders of Christian communities in acts of religious hatred. (HL4410)
Tabled on: 26 January 2015
Answer: Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
We are aware of reports of attacks on Christians and churches in India. These matters are being investigated by the Indian authorities.
I also refer the noble Lord to my answer of 31 December 2014 (HL3827), which gives details of our discussions with the Indian authorities.
Date and time of answer: 02 Feb 2015 at 16:21.
House of Commons Votes For GM Babies – Will the Lords ask for safety, legal and ethical issues to be addressed? 90 Minutes for GM Babies 90 Hours for Foxhunting.
House of Commons Votes For GM Babies – Will the Lords ask for safety, legal and ethical issues to be addressed?
Earlier this week the House of Commons voted to permit the creation of what some MPs described as genetically modified babies. The full debate and voting list is in Hansard at:
Note that among those who voted against the proposals, on what was a free vote, were the two most senior law officers in the Government, the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General. Around half the House of Commons voted against or abstained: 128 against and 350 for.
The House of Commons was given 90 minutes to consider this awesome question – a decision which will alter the genetic make-up of future generations. Just 90 minutes for GM babies – 90 hours for fox hunting. Nye Bevan once said that “politics is the religion of priorities”. What does this say about our priorities?
On February 24th the Mitochondria Regulations will now be considered in the House of Lords.
The former Cabinet Minister and Chairman of the Conservative Party Chairman, Lord Deben (John Gummer), with all-party support, has laid a Motion before the Lords urging Peers to consider more carefully, and with much more detailed parliamentary scrutiny, the safety and legal implications of this decision. He has called on the public to write to Members of the House of Lords asking them to vote for the Motion, which reads as follows:
Lord Deben to move that this House declines to approve the draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015 laid before the House on 17 December 2014 and calls on Her Majesty’s Government not to lay new draft regulations until a joint committee of both Houses has been established and has reported on (1) the safety of the procedures permitted by the draft regulations, (2) the compliance of the draft regulations with European Union and domestic law, and (3) the key definitions used in the draft regulations.
The Regulations contain two distinct methods of altering germ line genetic identity – spindle transfer and pro-nuclear transfer.
They both raise questions of legality in international law and both raise safety concerns.
The second (but not the former) also involves the destruction of at least two and, in some cases as many as ten, human embryos to create the new modified human embryo.
During the Commons debate, the Minister, Jane Ellison, was keen to combat the slippery slope argument with the following rejoinder:
“I looked back at the debates in the House on IVF all those years ago, when some were worried about a slippery slope, and all the safeguards are still in place more than two decades later.”
Those who used the slippery slope argument back in 1990 did so on the grounds that allowing for the destruction of human embryos in IVF was likely to lead to the commodification of the human embryo, and further abuses to human life.
Two decades later, around 2 million embryos have been experimented on, destroyed, or otherwise discarded. The 1990 legislation paved the way for the dignity of the human embryo to be defiled with the addition of gametes from other species. And this week, Parliament allowed for the genetic modification of human embryos. If that isn’t evidence of having fallen down a slippery slope, I don’t know what is.
We have been here before. In 2007, prior to the legalisation of human/animal hybrids, disabled people were told that without that provision, those of us who opposed it, were condemning them to years of suffering. It was a lie. The disabled people who were brought in wheelchairs to lobby Parliament in favour of animal human hybrids were shamelessly manipulated and exploited, cruelly raising false hopes. Funding agencies subsequently refused to finance the procedure which Parliament was stampeded into authorising. It was bad science and bad ethics.
The Warnock Report, which led to the 1990 legislation and paved the way for animal-human embryos, said that “the human embryo should be treated with respect”. Baroness Warnock subsequently said it was hard to see how you were showing respect as you flushed the human embryos down the drain. Welcome to Dystopia.
As we now consider crossing another red line note that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has admitted “pro nuclear transfer involves genetically modifying a human embryo”. The Department of Health says it doesn’t but there is no consensus on the science, the definitions or the law. What is clear is that using unamendable Regulations, hurried through Parliament we cross yet another red line
The procedure raises profound questions.
No other country in the world has sanctioned it. Most are signed up to Protocols banning it. Other Parliamentarians are askance that Britain is sullying its reputation by doing it. Even the People’s Republic of China – after using pro-nuclear transfer, and after the death of all three babies conceived, has banned it (the reasons for the three foetal deaths are unknown because the data has been withheld). Other countries which have banned it include the United States. So has the Council of Europe.
It would be callous not to recognise the deep desire of women whose children may be affected by mitochondrial diseases to bear healthy children of their own. However the issues of safety and legality still remain outstanding whatever view one takes of the ethics of one or both of these procedures.
How can it be right to push ahead with a procedure which, one world authority, Professor Stuart Newman, has described as “inherently unsafe?”. Another warned that “the UK is one the verge of an historic mistake.” The Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, who supports the proposals, told Peers this week: “no-one will guarantee that it is safe”;
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Expert Panel, in three reports, recommended a number of preclinical experiments. Yet the majority of these have not yet been conducted, written up, or peer-reviewed. This will surely leave the NHS open to the charge of negligence if babies are subsequently born with disabilities. Last month the NHS was required to pay compensation of £10 million to a girl of seven because of disabilities which occurred though their negligence when she was born. If there are unforeseen outcomes in any of these pregnancies won’t the failure to carry out proper clinical trials lead to similar litigation in the courts?
One scientist, who supports these procedures, rightly asks the question “how many abnormalities need to be seen before the programme is stopped.” That’s a central question – yet the Government’s advisers dismiss it saying it is “purely rhetorical.”
In a back-to-front process, and in the absence of pre-clinical trials and results, Parliament is being asked to give the last word on public safety to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. But they are a regulator, not a legislator. It is Parliament’s duty to protect the public.
I was particularly struck by the representations which have been made to British Parliamentarians by European Parliamentarians. 43 of them (including Greens, Socialists, Christian Democrats and Conservatives), wrote to the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt warning him of “the enormous safety consequences for the children created and their offspring.” They warned that the UK may be in breach of the European Union Clinical Trials Directive – which says that no procedure “used in clinical practice” may be authorised “without any investigation or trials first having taken place.”
The Attorney general in Northern Ireland concurs with that view, as does Lord Brennan QC who sent the Government Counsel’s Opinion that they are acting illegally. He cited Article 9(6) of the Directive (2001/20/EC) which states that “No gene therapy trials may be carried out which result in modifications to the subject’s germ line genetic identity.”
Much of the debate revolves around the key definitions which are used in the Regulations. The debate in the Commons found no settled view on whether the technology constitutes ‘genetic modification’; whether ‘mitochondrial donation’ is an accurate way to describe the processes involved; whether the procedures can be said to involve ‘three parents’ (and the implications for children born there from who will be denied knowledge of their true biological identity); and whether or not manipulating mitochondrial DNA will affect the characteristics of the children who result from these techniques. Some say it’s just like a blood-transfusion: but no blood transfusion brings a new human being into the world.
The one thing which is clear though this fog is that key questions of safety, legality, definitions and ethics cannot be treated in this cavalier way. Lord Deben is right to ask that a Joint committee of both Houses now goes away and considers these questions properly, separating and examining the two techniques involved, and allow Parliament to take a considered and informed view before further undermining its reputation and turning Britain into a rogue State.
If you wish to write to Peers you can do so by email http://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/contact-a-lord/lord/ or write to the House of Lords, London SW1 A OAA.
House of Commons Amendment To Safeguard The Lives of Unborn Girls Defeated – 201 votes to 292 votes – Full debate follows
House of Commons Amendment To Safeguard The Lives of Unborn Girls Defeated – 201 votes to 292 votes – Full debate and the Division List of how MPs voted follows:
On January 22nd, 73 Members of the House of Commons signed an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill based upon the Abortion (Sex-Selection) Ten Minute Rule Bill.
At the conclusion of its Committee Stage , Fiona Bruce laid an amendment to Section 65 of the Serious Crime Bill 2014, clarifying that the Abortion Act 1967 does not permit a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.
The amendment was selected by Mr.Speaker for debate at Report Stage and was voted upon. If it had succeeded it would have become law when the Serious Crime Bill receives Royal Assent.
This short amendment would have gone into Part 5 of the Bill which deals with crimes which have a disproportionate effect on girls, including female genital mutilation. Together with clause 74(2), which deals with how the Bill’s provisions can be followed-up, the amendment achieves the same effect as the 10 minute Rule Bill, which received near unanimity in a vote on the 4th November in the House of Commons where a motion approving the Abortion (Sex-Selection) Bill was passed 181:1.
Speaking about the amendment, Fiona Bruce MP said:
“The amendment has two aims. First to oblige the Government to think of ways to support women who are under pressure to abort on grounds of the sex of their baby. Second, to consolidate current law, which is necessary to prevent false information being distributed to women. Still today, BPAS, Britain’s biggest abortion provider, insists that sex-selective abortion is not illegal. We must battle the prejudices which give rise to the abhorrent practice of sex-selective abortion. It would be wrong to look the other way as women and girls continue to suffer.” *
Mary Glindon MP said:
“If opposing the abortion of baby girls – often under coercion – makes me anti-choice, then I will wear the label with pride.”
JasvinderSanghera CBE, founder and CEO of Karma Nirvana and spokeswoman for www.stopgendercide.org said:
“Sex-selective abortion is a reality in the UK. This is widely known in diaspora communities and beyond. The Government has a responsibility both to women suffering under cultural pressures and to their baby girls.”
Rani Bilkhu, founder of Jeena International, and spokeswoman for www.stopgendercide.org said:
“The Government has been clear that sex-selective abortion is illegal. But the UK’s biggest abortion provider BPAS continues to contradict them. It has been very upsetting to see some people claim that there is no evidence of sex-selective abortion in the UK. We know it is happening because we have been continually supporting women for nearly a decade who have had them or are being forced or coerced in having them. In their desperation to oppose this initiative, some radical commentators have said that there is no way to help women like those we deal with except through racial profiling. This is nonsense, and if the same argument were made about FGM and forced marriages, people would run a mile. We know sex-selective abortions are happening in the UK and the time has come to face up to it. People speak about choice. The women who we deal with rarely have a choice. Many are forced or coerced to abort simply because they are girls, this is the first act of violence against women and girls. We are supporting Fiona Bruce and her colleagues because it is the right approach, making a clear statement about the law, and providing the means for the Government to take practical action and to send a clear message to all stakeholders including communities that practice sex selection abortions is not only acceptable but against the law.”
For interviews, phone www.stopgendercide.org spokeswomen:
A full media kit including video feature, images and further information is available here: http://www.stopgendercide.org/media/
A feature video on the campaign including interviews with Jasvinder Sanghera, Rani Bilku and Fiona Bruce MP is available here: http://youtu.be/nJCMkb8R1Rw
SEX-SELECTIVE ABORTION AMENDMENT TO THE SERIOUS CRIME BILL
What does the amendment say?
“Nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.”
What would this achieve?
The amendment has two aims.
- To oblige the Government to think creatively about ways to help women who are under pressure to have sex-selective abortions.
- To clarify that sex-selective abortion is impermissible in UK law.
How would this amendment oblige the Government?
Clause 74(2) of the Serious Crime Bill provides that “the Secretary of State may by regulations make provision that is consequential on any provision of this Act”. Regulations would be an opportunity for the Government to consider and implement measures offering concrete help these women.
Why does the law need clarification?
While the Prime Minister and Department of Health are clear that ‘abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal’, they are flatly contradicted by the British Medical Association and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who between them represent those who vast majority of the sector. This is despite numerous clear ministerial statements and new Government guidance reiterating the illegality of the practice. The Government’s view is therefore reduced to an interpretation.
The ‘Sex-Selection’ amendment clarifies existing abortion law in line with the Government’s interpretation.
Would this require singling out a particular community or racial profiling?
No. As with FGM and forced marriage, the problem does seem to be prevalent in some minority communities. Like FGM and forced marriage, the Government has a duty to work out a way to help those affected with sensitivity. Mandating changes to doctors’ and counsellors’ guidance does not require racial profiling, and is just one idea.
Is sex-selective abortion an issue in the UK?
Yes, but on a very minor scale when compared with China or the Indian subcontinent. In 2012, the Telegraph ran investigations proving that it was possible to get doctors to refer for a gender abortion in the UK. Researchers from Oxford and Imperial College have found that gender selective abortion could be detected from birth and census data. In May 2014, the Department of Health produced an in-depth breakdown of birth data statistics, showing that there was no statistically significant gender ratio imbalance in the UK across ethnicities. However, there is a growing body of anecdotal research comprising the experiences of a number of women have spoken about their experiences of UK residents having sex-selective abortions in the UK as well as abroad. Rani Bilkhu, director of Jeena International which works with women who have had sex-selective abortions said “Saying that there is no evidence is tantamount to saying that these women are lying and that our organisation is making things up.”
 Prime Minister, Oral Answers to Questions 19 March 2014, c780 (Official Report)
 British Medical Association Press Release ‘Abortion guidance Ignores Gender Complexity, Say BMA’ 27th May, 2014 http://bma.org.uk/news-views-analysis/news/2014/may/abortion-guidance-ignores-gender-complexity-says-bma,
 British Pregnancy Advisory (BPAS) ‘Britain’s Abortion Law’ poses the question. ‘Is abortion for reasons of fetal sex illegal under the Abortion Act?’ They answer ‘No. The law is silent on the matter’ http://www.bpasresources.org/product_info.php?ID=11244 (registration necessary)
 Newell, C and Watt, H Abortion Investigation: Doctors Filmed Agreeing Illegal Abortions, No Questions Asked, Telegraph, 22nd Feb 2012
 See https://www.spi.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/PDF/WP35__Sex-ratio_of_births_to_India-born_mothers.pdf and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-lost-girls-illegal-abortion-widely-used-by-some-uk-ethnic-groups-to-avoid-daughters-has-reduced-female-population-by-between-1500-and-4700-9059790.html
 See Department of Health Birth Ratios in England and Wales, May 2014
 See for example Connor, S: ‘I had to terminate my pregnancies because I was carrying girls’ The Independent, 14th March 2014.
Scroll down for 1. Division List. 2. Some Media Comment. 3. Full Debate
Some Cabinet Ministers who voted for the Bruce Amendment:
David Cameron abstained, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband voted against..
Those in favour:
- Adams, Nigel
- Afriyie, Adam
- Aldous, Peter
- Amess, Sir David
- Andrew, Stuart
- Arbuthnot, rh Mr James
- Bacon, Mr Richard
- Baker, rh Norman
- Baldry, rh Sir Tony
- Barclay, Stephen
- Bebb, Guto
- Beith, rh Sir Alan
- Bellingham, Mr Henry
- Benyon, Richard
- Berry, Jake
- Birtwistle, Gordon
- Blackman, Bob
- Blomfield, Paul
- Blunkett, rh Mr David
- Bone, Mr Peter
- Bottomley, Sir Peter
- Brady, Mr Graham
- Brazier, Mr Julian
- Bridgen, Andrew
- Brokenshire, James
- Bruce, Fiona
- Burley, Mr Aidan
- Burns, Conor
- Burns, rh Mr Simon
- Burrowes, Mr David
- Burt, rh Alistair
- Cairns, Alun
- Carmichael, Neil
- Carswell, Douglas
- Cash, Sir William
- Chishti, Rehman
- Chope, Mr Christopher
- Coffey, Dr Thérèse
- Colvile, Oliver
- Connarty, Michael
- Cooper, Rosie
- Cox, Mr Geoffrey
- Crabb, rh Stephen
- Crausby, Mr David
- Cunningham, Mr Jim
- Cunningham, Sir Tony
- Davies, Glyn
- de Bois, Nick
- Dinenage, Caroline
- Docherty, Thomas
- Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.
- Dorries, Nadine
- Doyle, Gemma
- Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain
- Dunne, Mr Philip
- Durkan, Mark
- Ellis, Michael
- Ellwood, Mr Tobias
- Elphicke, Charlie
- Evans, Graham
- Evans, Jonathan
- Evans, Mr Nigel
- Evennett, Mr David
- Fallon, rh Michael
- Field, rh Mr Frank
- Field, Mark
- Flello, Robert
- Fox, rh Dr Liam
- Francois, rh Mr Mark
- Fuller, Richard
- Gale, Sir Roger
- Garnier, Mark
- Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl
- Glass, Pat
- Glen, John
- Glindon, Mrs Mary
- Goodwill, Mr Robert
- Graham, Richard
- Gray, Mr James
- Greatrex, Tom
- Green, rh Damian
- Grieve, rh Mr Dominic
- Gummer, Ben
- Halfon, Robert
- Hammond, Stephen
- Hands, rh Greg
- Harper, Mr Mark
- Harris, Mr Tom
- Hart, Simon
- Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan
- Hayes, rh Mr John
- Heaton-Harris, Chris
- Hillier, Meg
- Hinds, Damian
- Hoban, Mr Mark
- Hoey, Kate
- Hollingbery, George
- Hollobone, Mr Philip
- Howarth, Sir Gerald
- Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy
- Jackson, Mr Stewart
- Javid, rh Sajid
- Jones, Mr Marcus
- Jones, Susan Elan
- Kane, Mike
- Kawczynski, Daniel
- Kelly, Chris
- Kennedy, rh Mr Charles
- Knight, rh Sir Greg
- Leadsom, Andrea
- Lefroy, Jeremy
- Leigh, Sir Edward
- Leslie, Charlotte
- Letwin, rh Mr Oliver
- Lewis, Dr Julian
- Lidington, rh Mr David
- Lilley, rh Mr Peter
- Lloyd, Stephen
- Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn
- Loughton, Tim
- Luff, Sir Peter
- Lumley, Karen
- MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan
- Marsden, Mr Gordon
- May, rh Mrs Theresa
- McCann, Mr Michael
- McCartney, Karl
- McCrea, Dr William
- McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick
- McPartland, Stephen
- Meale, Sir Alan
- Menzies, Mark
- Mills, Nigel
- Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew
- Mosley, Stephen
- Mudie, Mr George
- Mundell, rh David
- Murphy, rh Paul
- Neill, Robert
- Newmark, Mr Brooks
- Nuttall, Mr David
- O’Brien, rh Mr Stephen
- Ollerenshaw, Eric
- Paice, rh Sir James
- Patel, Priti
- Pawsey, Mark
- Penning, rh Mike
- Percy, Andrew
- Pickles, rh Mr Eric
- Pincher, Christopher
- Pound, Stephen
- Prisk, Mr Mark
- Pritchard, Mark
- Pugh, John
- Raab, Mr Dominic
- Randall, rh Sir John
- Reckless, Mark
- Redwood, rh Mr John
- Rees-Mogg, Jacob
- Reevell, Simon
- Reid, Mr Alan
- Ritchie, Ms Margaret
- Robathan, rh Mr Andrew
- Rogerson, Dan
- Rosindell, Andrew
- Roy, Mr Frank
- Ruffley, Mr David
- Russell, Sir Bob
- Rutley, David
- Scott, Mr Lee
- Selous, Andrew
- Shannon, Jim
- Shelbrooke, Alec
- Shuker, Gavin
- Smith, Henry
- Spellar, rh Mr John
- Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline
- Stephenson, Andrew
- Stewart, Iain
- Streeter, Mr Gary
- Stuart, Mr Graham
- Stunell, rh Sir Andrew
- Sturdy, Julian
- Swayne, rh Mr Desmond
- Syms, Mr Robert
- Tapsell, rh Sir Peter
- Turner, Mr Andrew
- Twigg, Derek
- Vara, Mr Shailesh
- Vickers, Martin
- Walker, Mr Charles
- Walker, Mr Robin
- Wallace, Mr Ben
- Webb, rh Steve
- Weir, Mr Mike
- Wharton, James
- White, Chris
- Whittaker, Craig
- Whittingdale, Mr John
- Wiggin, Bill
- Williams, Mr Mark
- Williamson, Gavin
- Wilson, Mr Rob
- Wilson, Sammy
Tellers for the Ayes:
- Abbott, Ms Diane
- Abrahams, Debbie
- Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob
- Alexander, Heidi
- Ali, Rushanara
- Allen, Mr Graham
- Anderson, Mr David
- Ashworth, Jonathan
- Bailey, Mr Adrian
- Bain, Mr William
- Balls, rh Ed
- Baron, Mr John
- Barron, rh Kevin
- Bayley, Sir Hugh
- Beckett, rh Margaret
- Benn, rh Hilary
- Beresford, Sir Paul
- Berger, Luciana
- Betts, Mr Clive
- Bingham, Andrew
- Blears, rh Hazel
- Blenkinsop, Tom
- Blomfield, Paul
- Blunt, Crispin
- Boles, Nick
- Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben
- Brake, rh Tom
- Brennan, Kevin
- Brine, Steve
- Brooke, rh Annette
- Brown, rh Mr Nicholas
- Brown, Mr Russell
- Browne, Mr Jeremy
- Bruce, rh Sir Malcolm
- Bryant, Chris
- Buck, Ms Karen
- Burnham, rh Andy
- Burt, Lorely
- Byles, Dan
- Byrne, rh Mr Liam
- Campbell, rh Mr Alan
- Campbell, Mr Ronnie
- Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair
- Caton, Martin
- Chapman, Jenny
- Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
- Coaker, Vernon
- Coffey, Ann
- Collins, Damian
- Cooper, Rosie
- Cooper, rh Yvette
- Corbyn, Jeremy
- Creagh, Mary
- Creasy, Stella
- Crockart, Mike
- Crouch, Tracey
- Cryer, John
- Cunningham, Alex
- Dakin, Nic
- Danczuk, Simon
- Darling, rh Mr Alistair
- Davey, rh Mr Edward
- David, Wayne
- Davidson, Mr Ian
- Davies, David T. C. (Monmouth)
- Davies, Geraint
- De Piero, Gloria
- Donohoe, Mr Brian H.
- Doran, Mr Frank
- Doughty, Stephen
- Dowd, Jim
- Dromey, Jack
- Dugher, Michael
- Duncan, rh Sir Alan
- Eagle, Ms Angela
- Eagle, Maria
- Edwards, Jonathan
- Efford, Clive
- Elliott, Julie
- Ellison, Jane
- Ellman, Mrs Louise
- Evans, Chris
- Fabricant, Michael
- Featherstone, rh Lynne
- Fitzpatrick, Jim
- Flint, rh Caroline
- Flynn, Paul
- Foster, rh Mr Don
- Fovargue, Yvonne
- Francis, Dr Hywel
- Freer, Mike
- Gapes, Mike
- Gardiner, Barry
- Garnier, Mark
- George, Andrew
- Gibb, Mr Nick
- Gilbert, Stephen
- Goldsmith, Zac
- Green, Kate
- Greening, rh Justine
- Greenwood, Lilian
- Griffith, Nia
- Gwynne, Andrew
- Gyimah, Mr Sam
- Hain, rh Mr Peter
- Hames, Duncan
- Hamilton, Mr David
- Hamilton, Fabian
- Hancock, rh Matthew
- Hancock, Mr Mike
- Hanson, rh Mr David
- Harman, rh Ms Harriet
- Harrington, Richard
- Harris, Rebecca
- Hart, Simon
- Harvey, Sir Nick
- Havard, Mr Dai
- Healey, rh John
- Hemming, John
- Hendry, Charles
- Heyes, David
- Hilling, Julie
- Hodge, rh Margaret
- Hodgson, Mrs Sharon
- Hollingbery, George
- Hood, Mr Jim
- Hopkins, Kelvin
- Horwood, Martin
- Howarth, rh Mr George
- Howell, John
- Hughes, rh Simon
- Hunt, Tristram
- Huppert, Dr Julian
- Hurd, Mr Nick
- Irranca-Davies, Huw
- Jackson, Glenda
- James, Margot
- James, Mrs Siân C.
- Jarvis, Dan
- Jenkin, Mr Bernard
- Jenrick, Robert
- Johnson, rh Alan
- Johnson, Diana
- Johnson, Gareth
- Johnson, Joseph
- Jones, Andrew
- Jones, Graham
- Jones, Mr Kevan
- Jowell, rh Dame Tessa
- Kane, Mike
- Kendall, Liz
- Khan, rh Sadiq
- Kirby, Simon
- Lancaster, Mark
- Latham, Pauline
- Lavery, Ian
- Lazarowicz, Mark
- Leech, Mr John
- Leslie, Chris
- Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma
- Lewis, Brandon
- Lewis, Mr Ivan
- Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian
- Love, Mr Andrew
- Lucas, Caroline
- Lucas, Ian
- Mactaggart, Fiona
- Mahmood, Mr Khalid
- Malhotra, Seema
- Mann, John
- McCabe, Steve
- McCarthy, Kerry
- McCartney, Jason
- McDonagh, Siobhain
- McDonald, Andy
- McDonnell, John
- McFadden, rh Mr Pat
- McGovern, Alison
- McGuire, rh Dame Anne
- McInnes, Liz
- McKechin, Ann
- McKenzie, Mr Iain
- Mearns, Ian
- Metcalfe, Stephen
- Miliband, rh Edward
- Miller, Andrew
- Miller, rh Maria
- Mitchell, Austin
- Moon, Mrs Madeleine
- Moore, rh Michael
- Mordaunt, Penny
- Morden, Jessica
- Morgan, rh Nicky
- Morrice, Graeme (Livingston)
- Morris, Grahame M. (Easington)
- Morris, James
- Mowat, David
- Munn, Meg
- Munt, Tessa
- Murray, Sheryll
- Murrison, Dr Andrew
- Nandy, Lisa
- Nokes, Caroline
- O’Donnell, Fiona
- Offord, Dr Matthew
- Onwurah, Chi
- Osborne, Sandra
- Ottaway, rh Sir Richard
- Owen, Albert
- Parish, Neil
- Pearce, Teresa
- Perkins, Toby
- Perry, Claire
- Phillips, Stephen
- Phillipson, Bridget
- Poulter, Dr Daniel
- Powell, Lucy
- Qureshi, Yasmin
- Raynsford, rh Mr Nick
- Reed, Mr Steve
- Reynolds, Emma
- Robertson, Angus
- Robertson, rh Sir Hugh
- Robertson, John
- Robinson, Mr Geoffrey
- Rotheram, Steve
- Ruddock, rh Dame Joan
- Sanders, Mr Adrian
- Sandys, Laura
- Sarwar, Anas
- Sawford, Andy
- Seabeck, Alison
- Shapps, rh Grant
- Sharma, Mr Virendra
- Sheerman, Mr Barry
- Simmonds, rh Mark
- Simpson, Mr Keith
- Skidmore, Chris
- Skinner, Mr Dennis
- Slaughter, Mr Andy
- Smith, rh Mr Andrew
- Smith, Angela
- Smith, Chloe
- Smith, Julian
- Smith, Nick
- Smith, Owen
- Smith, Sir Robert
- Soames, rh Sir Nicholas
- Soubry, Anna
- Stewart, Bob
- Stewart, Rory
- Stride, Mel
- Stringer, Graham
- Stuart, Ms Gisela
- Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry
- Swales, Ian
- Swinson, Jo
- Swire, rh Mr Hugo
- Tami, Mark
- Thornberry, Emily
- Thurso, rh John
- Tomlinson, Justin
- Trickett, Jon
- Turner, Karl
- Twigg, Stephen
- Tyrie, Mr Andrew
- Umunna, Mr Chuka
- Uppal, Paul
- Vaizey, Mr Edward
- Vaz, Valerie
- Walley, Joan
- Ward, Mr David
- Watkinson, Dame Angela
- Watson, Mr Tom
- Watts, Mr Dave
- Weatherley, Mike
- Wheeler, Heather
- Whiteford, Dr Eilidh
- Whitehead, Dr Alan
- Williams, Stephen
- Williamson, Chris
- Wilson, Phil
- Winnick, Mr David
- Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
- Wollaston, Dr Sarah
- Wood, Mike
- Woodcock, John
- Woodward, rh Mr Shaun
- Wright, David
- Wright, Mr Iain
- Wright, Simon
- Yeo, Mr Tim
- Young, rh Sir George
- Zahawi, Nadhim
Tellers for the Noes:
Question accordingly negatived.
Some media comment:
Tim Montgomerie comment piece:
Dominic Grieve debunking legal myths about amendment:
Asian communities hit out at those who whipped against the amendment.
The House of Commons Debate:
New Clause 1
Termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child
‘Nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.’—(Fiona Bruce.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): With this it will be convenient to discuss New clause 25 —Termination of pregnancy on grounds of sex of foetus—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall arrange for an assessment to be made of the evidence of termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the foetus in England, Wales and Scotland.
(2) The arrangements made under subsection (1) shall be such as to enable publication of the assessment by the Secretary of State within 6 months of the date of Royal Assent to this Act.
(3) The Secretary of State shall consider the assessment made under subsection (1) and—
(a) determine and publish a strategic plan to tackle substantiated concerns identified in the assessment made under subsection (1); or
(b) publish a statement and explanation in relation to why a plan under subsection (3)(a) is not required.
(4) Any strategic plan under subsection (3)(a) must include, but need not be limited to, steps—
(a) to promote change in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women and which may amount to pressure to seek a termination on the grounds of the sex of the foetus;
(b) to ensure best practice exists in identifying women being coerced or pressured into seeking a termination on the grounds of the sex of the foetus, or at risk of being so, and in the provision of protection and support to potential victims; and
(c) to promote guidance to service providers, health professionals and other stakeholders.
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(5) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the plan, determined under subsection (3)(a), before each House of Parliament within 6 months of the publication date of the assessment under subsection (2).’
Fiona Bruce: New clause 1, which I wish to be put to a vote, is supported by more than 100 MPs. The arguments for it are straightforward. First, it is to clarify beyond doubt, in statute, that sex-selective abortion is illegal in UK law. This new clause is not seeking to change the law on abortion as some have said, but to confirm and clarify it. It also provides the Government with an opportunity to address the problem by bringing forward best practice regulations and guidance to support and protect women at risk.
New clause 1 is necessary because there is no explicit statement about gender selective abortion in UK law. The law is being interpreted in different ways because when the Abortion Act 1967 was passed, scans to determine the sex of the foetus were not available. That has led to a huge amount of confusion and mixed messages. That is despite the fact that the Government have repeatedly said that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal. Health Ministers have said so; the Prime Minister has said so; the Department of Health has published guidance to that effect; and the chief medical officer has written to doctors about it. Despite all of that, abortion providers and others, staggeringly, are still refusing to accept the Government’s interpretation of the law.
Only last week, the country’s largest abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, republished its controversial guidance in a booklet entitled, “Britain’s abortion law: what it says and why”. The following question is posed: is abortion for reasons of foetal sex illegal under the Abortion Act? To this, it answers, “No, the law is silent on the matter.” The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has said:
“The law does not in terms expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions.”
Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): All we are trying to do is simply clarify what everyone in the House of Commons wants to be the law: we should not have abortion on the basis of gender. That is the reply to the DPP. We just want the law to be made absolutely clear.
Fiona Bruce: Absolutely right. That is the purpose of new clause 1. I will come on to explain why it is so important to many of the women who are suffering as a result of the lack of clarity in the law.
This House must make the matter clear. If we cannot get a consistent line from abortion providers on whether or not it is illegal to abort a girl—it is usually girls but not always—for the sole reason that she is a girl, then the law is not fit for purpose. To do so constitutes a gross form of sex discrimination. Indeed it is the first and most fundamental form of violence against women and girls. Surely no one can object to a clause that simply states that that is wrong.
New clause 1 will do more than that, because if it is passed, by virtue of clause 79 (2) the Government will be able to issue guidance to help address this abuse and support affected women. That is why new clause 25 is inadequate when taken alone. What it is proposing is a
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Department of Health assessment or review of the issue. The Department can already do that. Without new clause 1, it is inadequate, because it fails to go to the heart of the issue and to clear up the very real confusion that exists. It fails to clarify the law, as new clause 1 does, that sex election abortion is illegal in this country.
Let me turn now to some of the objections to new clause 1. Much of them have misrepresented its impact and some have been plain scaremongering. First, it is said that it will criminalise women. That is flatly untrue. The clause applies only to authorising doctors; it does not affect an expectant mother’s standing in law. We have also heard that it will stop abortion for disability where there is a sex-linked condition. That is also totally incorrect. I can reassure colleagues that there is nothing in this new clause to prevent a doctor from diagnosing substantial risk of serious handicap via the sex of the baby. In such cases, the ground for the abortion is the risk of the disability, not the sex of the baby. New clause 1 will not change that, and I have been careful to obtain expert legal opinion to that effect.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): The hon. Lady spoke rightly a few moments ago about the importance of clarity in law. Does she not agree that there would be reluctance and confusion when the grounds for a termination were the genetic disorder, but the only way in which that genetic order could arise is in relation to the gender of the foetus?
Fiona Bruce: Not at all. We can trust our medical practitioners to be professional in that respect. It is quite clear that the ground for the abortion in such cases would be the genetic condition and not the sex of the child.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?
Fiona Bruce: I will, but then I need to make progress.
Glenda Jackson: There are certain genetic diseases that are transmitted by the mother to a male foetus. They are not passed on to a female foetus. So the hon. Lady’s argument is invalid.
Fiona Bruce: That is exactly the point that I am making. If the handicap, or the condition, is diagnosed via the sex of the baby, in such cases the grounds for the abortion, through that diagnosis, is the risk of serious handicap, and on that ground the abortion can be legitimately carried out.
Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend, although I do not think that she needs assistance. Of all the arguments that have been put forward on this matter, the one that has no traction at all is the suggestion that enacting this new clause would lead to the confusion that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) fears. It plainly would not. There might be other arguments that can be advanced and of course there will be different views across the House, but that could not possibly happen if the new clause were enacted.
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Fiona Bruce rose—
Glenda Jackson: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Fiona Bruce: No, I am going to continue. I thank the former Attorney-General for making that point so lucidly.
We have also heard that the new clause could introduce racial profiling of expectant mothers, but has anyone argued that for female genital mutilation? The term “family balancing” goes wider than any one particular community.
Then there is the argument that the new clause will do nothing to help abused women. It will indeed. It will clarify the law and as Polly Harrar of Jeena International powerfully told me:
“What we’ve found with the Forced Marriage Act 2007 was that we were able to use that piece of legislation as a bargaining tool to negotiate with parents, so a young woman could say, ‘You do realise this is a criminal offence?’”
In the same way, Polly says,
“with sex-selective abortion: having clarity in the law means that women could use this clarification to protect themselves against pressure to have a sex-selection abortion.”
She continues that
“as with FGM having a higher profile, legislation does effect a step change in cultural attitudes. So while legislation alone is not enough, it has real power to change behaviour, and that’s what is needed.”
That addresses clearly the Royal College of Midwives’ objection that new clause 1 will do little to alleviate the external pressures or coercion that these women face. As Mandy Sanghera said:
“We also we hope this will act as a deterrent—it will enable women to have more control over their own decisions.”
Is that not what many objecting to the clause want?
What does not help women under pressure to have an abortion simply because they are carrying a girl or a boy, whether that pressure comes from violence or coercion or is more subtle, is allowing that abortion to take place and sending the woman back to an abusive situation. To do so is to condone the very culture behind the pressure for such abortions and to exacerbate such abuse. The new clause does nothing to diminish services for those suffering abuse. Indeed, if it is followed by sensitively crafted regulations it should certainly improve them.
Then the quite offensive point is made that there is no evidence for sex-selective abortions in the UK. That is offensive as it is insulting to women such as those I have mentioned who have been campaigning for many years to stop this practice. Yes, the numbers are small compared with those in China or India, but they are real. Should we have to wait until those numbers grow before we take action? Rani Bilkhu, who, incidentally, is pro-choice, says:
“I have been supporting women dealing with sex-selective abortions…for almost a decade. Saying that there is no evidence is tantamount to saying that the women we work with are lying and that my organisation”—
“is making things up.”
Interestingly, Rani also says that “nobody is collecting data”, so it is no wonder that opponents of the new clause say that there is none.
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I know of many examples of women who have suffered. One had one daughter, conceived a second girl, had an abortion and then could not conceive again. Another had three abortions on the basis of gender, including of twins. Another’s husband punched and kicked her in the stomach when he discovered she was having a girl. Yet another says that
“women suffer depression after these abortions. What is not always considered is the emotional and psychological impact.”
These women deserve our support in the manner that they say will really help—through legislation and by clarifying the law. That does not stop a review, but it is essential that we clear up the confusion, support these women and pass new clause 1. In doing so, we would reflect the overwhelming public mood. A recent ComRes poll showed that 84% of the public agree that aborting babies because of their gender should be explicitly banned by law. More than that, we should support new clause 1 because it is, quite simply, the right thing to do.
Ann Coffey: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of new clause 25, tabled by me, the right hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott), my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell), my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the hon. Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). I will seek to test the opinion of the House on the new clause.
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 makes it a criminal offence intentionally to unlawfully procure a miscarriage, including for a woman to procure her own miscarriage. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 makes it a criminal offence intentionally to kill a child capable of being born alive before it has a life independent of its mother. The Abortion Act 1967 creates exceptions to those offences in limited circumstances and abortion on the grounds of gender is not one of those exceptions. It is therefore illegal and subject to criminal prosecution. Indeed, guidance was reissued as recently as May 2014 by the Department of Health that said again categorically that abortion on the grounds of sex was illegal. I am therefore not quite sure why the new clause proposed by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is needed or how inserting it into the 1967 Act would address her concerns.
Sir Edward Leigh: If the hon. Lady thinks that such abortions are illegal under the 1967 Act, what possible objection could there be to making that explicit in law?
Ann Coffey: If the hon. Gentleman will wait, I am coming to that point.
The statement the hon. Member for Congleton proposes would sit alongside the existing seven grounds for termination in the 1967 Act, but of course the sex of the foetus can be a factor in causing so much distress for the woman that she meets the existing medical criteria for a termination. The British Medical Association supplied two case studies that demonstrated how that can occur. In both cases, gender was a key factor in affecting the state of mind of the pregnant woman and her wish not to continue the pregnancy. It is not clear how new clause 1, if added to the Bill, would affect the decision
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of doctors on the legal grounds on which they might agree a termination, if at all. It would inevitably be subject to legal challenges that would, I believe, dilute the clarity of the 1967 Act. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that doctors are granting terminations to women who do not meet the medical grounds laid down in the Abortion Act 1967.
Mr Burrowes: Does the hon. Lady agree with the TUC interpretation of the law, which is that it would be right in some circumstances for a doctor to approve an abortion if, for example, a woman did not want to have a girl for cultural reasons?
Ann Coffey: I repeat that as far as I am aware there is no evidence that doctors are granting terminations to women who do not meet the medical grounds laid down in the Abortion Act 1967. That would be a criminal offence.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I am sure that the hon. Lady is right about there not being evidence for that. Is she aware of whether there is evidence of doctors refusing permission for a termination on the grounds of one of those criteria? Are there statistics to demonstrate that that happens?
Ann Coffey: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, part of the new clause proposes a proper assessment of some of the issues surrounding this question. I hope that during the assessment we would get much better facts about what is and what is not happening.
Women are pregnant in very different circumstances, subject to different pressures—economic, familial and community—that can all influence a pregnant woman’s state of mind and her attitude to continuing her pregnancy. If there is no substantiated evidence that doctors are granting abortions on the grounds of gender alone, we might be dealing with a more complex issue, which is how wider community and cultural attitudes to girls and women affect the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman.
Therefore, before legislating we should examine the facts relating to this complex issue, because I am concerned that the insertion of the proposed statement might have the unwanted consequence of women who might otherwise have access to an abortion on the grounds of physical and mental welfare being denied a termination. New clause 25 would arrange for an assessment of the evidence of termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the foetus in England, Wales and Scotland to be published within six months of Royal Assent. Of course, included in that assessment should be the experiences of women who feel that they have been pressured to have their pregnancies terminated.
Like other hon. Members, I have received briefings from many organisations and groups on the issue, and they demonstrate its complexity. One group that is in favour of new clause 1 talked about a growing body of research comprising the experiences of women who have talked about having sex-selective abortions in the UK as well as abroad. It states:
“We know from experience that women are having sex-selective abortions in the UK, and we feel their experiences—which reflect a much wider problem—should be taken seriously before the situation worsens.”
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Another group that is opposed to new clause 1 has said that it would
“have far reaching and unintended consequences for the very women it purports to protect.”
It talked about the need to locate the protection of women from sex-selective abortion within a safeguarding framework. It states:
“There is a need to examine the issue alongside other forms of gender discrimination that impact on the practice, including the practice of dowry, domestic violence and honour based violence.”
It therefore calls for a wide-ranging inquiry, including on available support services.
Sir Edward Garnier: The arguments that the hon. Lady is making are those that I have read and that have persuaded me against supporting new clause 1, which I had originally intended to do when it was first mooted. I am persuaded that the real difficulty we face is getting evidence to court, and nothing that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has said will improve the quality of the evidence. I horribly disapprove—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. This is not an opportunity for the hon. and learned Gentleman to make a speech. This debate must end at 9 o’clock and many Members wish to speak, so interventions must be brief. I think that we have the gist of what he was saying—
Sir Edward Garnier rose—
Madam Deputy Speaker: No, I think that we have the gist. Thank you.
Ann Coffey: I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman has made his point.
I agree that the connection between cultural preferences for one sex and the factors that might then lead to a state of inconsolable distress for the pregnant woman needs to be better understood to enable us to protect women from coercion and to support them in their pregnancies. We should certainly look at the facts before agreeing to any change in the wording of the 1967 Act, because we must be careful not to worsen the situation for already vulnerable women.
New clause 1 assumes that restating that sex-selective abortion is illegal will offer women protection from pressure to terminate their pregnancies, but women subject to intolerable pressure to abort will continue to be subject to coercion. My concern is about how women would interpret the inclusion of the new clause. They might feel that Parliament has legislated that if the sex of the child is at all an issue, irrespective of their mental distress, they will not have access to a termination. Sometimes it is not what legislation says that has a powerful effect on behaviour, but what people believe it says. That might lead them to pursue alternative routes as a first resort, rather than a last one. We do not want to go back to the days of the botched backstreet abortions that took place prior to the 1967 Act, which throughout the ages have been the resort of desperate women. I remember the lengths to which women would go to terminate their pregnancies prior to that Act, in spite of the risks to their own health.
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If the assessment that we propose uncovers substantiated concerns that there is pressure to seek terminations on the grounds of gender, we need to put in place a plan to deal with what is giving rise to those pressures and how we can better support women who might be being coerced. That is the proposal in the second part of new clause 25. I hope that in bringing forward those proposals there would be extensive consultation with women from all cultural backgrounds.
Finally, I would like to share a story with Members. On a recent train journey I started talking with an Asian woman who was originally from Bangladesh. In the course of the conversation she showed me a photo of her three daughters, who are now grown up. I said that they were beautiful and how lucky she was to have three daughters, at which point she looked very distressed. She then told me that she had never enjoyed any of her pregnancies because she knew that she was carrying a girl and that her then husband saw girls as being of no value and, in turn, viewed her as having no value as a wife because she had not produced a son. He eventually abandoned her. However, I am happy to report that my travelling companion went on to have her own career and that her girls are confident young women who are finding their own ways in life.
When I asked her what she thought could be done about those attitudes to girls, she said that the answer was education, education, education. She of course is right. We understand that from our own history of fighting for women’s equality—a fight that many of us still feel is a work in progress. I hope that this cross-party amendment will be supported by the House and that it will mean that when the Secretary of State reports back in six months’ time on her assessment, with accompanying proposals, we will be better informed about a way forward in addressing concerns that I agree we should not ignore. No woman should feel pressured into seeking a termination for any reason, including gender.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I will try to do so relatively briefly in order to allow more Back-Bench contributions. New clause 1, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and new clause 25, which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), both relate to the very important matter of addressing the abhorrent practice of sex-selective abortion.
The Government have been consistently clear that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal. The Department of Health repeated that in guidance issued in May 2014, and it is important to stress that all independent sector providers have agreed to comply with, and operate on the basis of, the Department’s guidance and that they must do so as part of their licensing conditions. The Care Quality Commission monitors compliance with that, including through its inspection visits.
Mr Burrowes: On the welcome guidance that was published, I understand from freedom of information requests, and from an e-mail sent on 21 January, that there was a request for joint badging of that guidance to ensure that all the stakeholders signed up to it. Why did that not happen? Why was it left only to the Department to publish it?
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Jane Ellison: It was the Department’s own guidance, which is why the Department published it. In the course of forming the guidance, we spoke with all the people we would be expected to speak to.
The chief medical officer for England has written twice to all doctors—in February 2012 and November 2013—reminding them of their responsibilities under the 1967 Act and reiterating the Government’s position on gender-selective abortion, and that was reiterated by professional bodies.
The Department has also undertaken detailed analysis to investigate whether the gender birth ratio in the UK varies by the mother’s country of birth beyond the range that might be expected to occur naturally. The analysis, first published in May 2013 and updated in 2014, concluded that, when broken down by the mother’s country of birth, no group was statistically different from the range we would expect to see naturally occurring. The Department has quite rightly committed to repeat that analysis annually when new birth data become available. However, I stress that the Government will remain vigilant, will continue to monitor data and will be fully open to any other evidence that comes to light.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton cited poignant anecdotal reports of sex-selective abortion, as she did on her ten-minute rule Bill. As I said to her at the end of that debate, I urge her and anyone with evidence of individual cases to report this to the police to investigate. I invite her once again to come to the Department with such evidence.
Considerable concern has been expressed about the impact of new clause 1 and it is right that we touch on that. The Government consider that the new clause would restate our long-standing position on the issue—that abortion on the ground of gender alone is illegal. However, hon. Members will have heard the concerns expressed by a number of groups about the practical implications of new clause 1. Although the Government do not consider on balance that ground E would be affected by the new clause, it is naturally worrying for me as a Health Minister to hear from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives about the concerns that new clause 1 has caused among health professionals providing termination of pregnancy services to women.
Mr Grieve: I am very grateful to hear from my hon. Friend that ground E would not be jeopardised. The Government have access to good legal advice—[Interruption.] I trust that they have access to good legal advice, and it must be the case that the Government have a position on the matter. I am grateful to hear from my hon. Friend that that particular anxiety is completely misplaced.
Jane Ellison: I am concerned about the fears that some people have about the practical implications of the new clause, and I think others share that concern. I hope to come on to that
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists highlighted the potential impact on abortions for foetal abnormality—I hear the point that was made on that in two interventions—where an inherited gender-related condition may be indicated, and the possibility that the new clause, if passed, may result in further concerns. The RCOG says:
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“Parents with a family history of such a condition may not have the option of Ground E.”
The RCOG also says, in relation to how doctors might feel about the practical implications, that “doctors deciding not to provide this aspect of gynaecological care”
might do so
“because it is deemed to be too ‘risky’ to them professionally.”
The House will want to be aware of these and other concerns regarding the practical implications of the new clause from the body that represents the doctors who provide these services and whom we entrust with the training, support and education of our future work force.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one of the issues is that there are some types of X-linked genetic disorders affecting only one sex that cannot be detected by genetic testing for the specific condition in question, and that that is where the uncertainty arises? In other words, it would be entirely on the basis of the sex of the child. That is why the concern and uncertainty would be increased by the new clause.
Jane Ellison: My hon. Friend exactly describes the concerns as they have been expressed to me by the RCOG.
It may be helpful for me to give the House some figures on abortions in our country. The House is aware that the vast majority of abortions—91%—are carried out at under 13 weeks’ gestation. This is before the gestational age at which the sex of the foetus is routinely identified at the second scan, at around 18 to 21 weeks’ gestation. Disclosing the sex of the foetus is a local decision and is based on clinical judgment about the certainty of the assessment and the individual circumstances of each case. Some 98% of all abortions were carried out at under 18 weeks’ gestation in England and Wales in 2013. It is also the case that 98% of abortions performed in the independent sector in 2013 were carried out at under 18 weeks. By contrast, in 2013, 94% of reported abortions for foetal abnormality were performed in NHS hospitals. In the light of this, the House would want to consider that the new clause could be thought likely to have greatest potential impact on those health professionals working in our NHS, rather than on independent sector providers.
As the hon. Member for Stockport explained, new clause 25 would require a further assessment of the evidence that terminations are taking place on the ground of the sex of the foetus alone. I have already outlined the analysis that the Department of Health is undertaking on an annual basis in this area. We will also take into consideration any other evidence that comes to light. I stress to the House that we take the issue of coercion and abuse very seriously. Women who present for an abortion will always have the opportunity to speak to a health professional on their own at some point during the consultation. From my perspective as public health Minister, this is the sort of issue that would sensibly be considered as part of any further review, and the Department of Health is already considering what further sources of evidence can contribute to our knowledge on this important issue.
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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that clauses 73 and 74 of this Bill precisely help to protect women from family coercion to have an abortion?
Jane Ellison: That is a useful point to draw out about other parts of this important Bill.
It is for the House to decide whether it wants to place the commitment to a further review on a statutory footing by supporting new clause 25.
As is the convention with such issues of conscience, as a Government we do not take a position either for or against new clauses 1 and 25. If the matter is pressed to a Division, Government Members will have a free vote. However, I hope that it has been helpful to hon. Members in forming their own opinion on these two new clauses for me to set out the Government’s actions to date in this area, the facts in relation to the gestations at which most abortions are performed, and the concerns raised by professional bodies. As I have said, it is for the House to decide whether it wants to support either of the new clauses, or indeed both or neither of them, but I reiterate that abortion of a foetus on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): The impassioned speeches that we have heard in this debate are testament to what a sensitive and complex matter this is. New clause 1 would amend the Abortion Act 1967 and proposes that a pregnancy could not
“be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.”
New clause 25 would require a review of the evidence relating to abortion on the grounds of gender alone and for this to be followed by a strategic Government plan that addresses concerns about the prevalence of termination on the grounds of the sex of the foetus in England, Scotland and Wales.
I am in favour of new clause 25 as the best way to address concerns about sex-selective abortions. Outwardly, the intentions behind new clause 1 might seem reasonable. However, a wide range of well-respected organisations and experts have raised concerns, pointing out a number of unintended and troubling consequences. The organisations include the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the British Medical Association, the TUC, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Genetic Alliance UK, Imkaan and the Southall Black Sisters, among many others.
Sir Edward Leigh: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Luciana Berger: I am going to continue because we have a lot to get through and many Members wish to speak.
New clause 1 represents a significant departure from the current principles on which abortion law in this country is based. Given that this is a matter of huge significance, the new clause deserves fuller debate and scrutiny than we have the opportunity for in the remaining 24 minutes of this debate.
Choosing to terminate a pregnancy simply because the foetus one is carrying is not the sex one wishes for is a notion that most people find abhorrent. As the hon.
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Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) confirmed, sex-selective abortion is already illegal under the Abortion Act 1967.
Sir Edward Leigh: Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?
Luciana Berger: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am not going to take his intervention.
The Government, along with the chief medical officer, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Royal College of Midwives, have said that abortions carried out on the sole premise of foetal sex are illegal. As we have heard, updated guidance and instructions to doctors published within the past 12 months have clarified this. All independent sector providers have also agreed to follow the revised guidance as part of their licensing agreements. Let me be clear: we do not need new clause 1 to make sex-selective abortion illegal. However, it is right that we should send a strong message from this Parliament that gender-selective abortions are wrong. We can do that today by requiring the Government to carry out a thorough assessment and produce an action plan to address the root causes of this practice. That is what new clause 25 would do.
The change to the law proposed in new clause 1 would not only fail to address the root issues that lie behind the problem but have serious unintended consequences. I listened closely to the hon. Member for Congleton and to the former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), but I point to the text of new clause 1, which it is worth reading out:
“Nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.”
It says that nothing is to be so interpreted, so that includes medical grounds, the well-being of the mother, and gender-specific abnormalities. At best, this would create uncertainty and doubt for doctors who administer abortions in these situations and a legal grey area for women who are already facing a very difficult decision. I heard the former Attorney-General’s intervention, but I have listened to many legal experts who have written on the pages of many papers—
Mr Grieve: I appreciate that there may be policy arguments and all sorts of good arguments to make, but it is simply incorrect to argue that the new clause would have the consequences that have been claimed of preventing, for example, abortion from taking place where, because of the gender, there was a likelihood of disability. The Minister confirmed that. She was a bit hesitant about it, but she eventually did so when I intervened on her, so I repeat her assurance. My view is that this argument is completely groundless.
Luciana Berger: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his intervention, but, as we have heard, many legal experts dispute that position. I refer to the specific text of the new clause, which says nothing about, and is in direct conflict with, paragraphs (a) to (d) of section 1(1) of the Abortion Act.
The Genetic Alliance has said that
“the consequences of this amendment could be devastating to women and couples at risk of having a child affected by a serious x-linked condition.”
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I have heard from one family where two sisters were carriers of x-linked severe combined immunodeficiency, a disease that affects only boys. After years of thinking, one sister decided not to have any children, because she did not want to risk the chance of having to choose between having a very poorly son or a termination. Her sister decided—also after many years of consideration—to have children and went on to have three healthy daughters. Those were the choices that those women made after much consideration and deliberation with their families. How can Parliament take that decision away from them? I am sure that no one would wish to deprive their daughter, sister or partner of that choice. It is surely not for Parliament to rush this through in the short time available and deny families the opportunity to have children or a healthy baby.
Another serious concern is that new clause 1 is not just a clarification of the law, but a fundamental reform of the essential principles on which existing abortion law in this country been based for 47 years. The Abortion Act 1967 places the physical and mental health of the woman as the overriding concern of a doctor authorising abortion. Our current legislation refers to the foetus rather than the unborn child. That is because, across our legislation and common law, children are accorded a wide range of protections and rights that Parliament has previously agreed should not be accorded to the foetus.
Changing the language of the Abortion Act, as this new clause would do, would send a very different signal to the courts and open up different judicial interpretations of abortion or new consequences and restrictions that would go far beyond the issue of sex selection. For the first time since legislation in 1929, new clause 1, if passed, could afford the foetus rights that would be in conflict with those of the mother and it could seriously jeopardise the future of safe, legal abortion in the UK.
Fiona Bruce: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Luciana Berger: I am not going to give way. I am going to wrap up, because I am conscious of the time and Madam Deputy Speaker wants me to conclude.
There are many other points that I would have liked to address, particularly the issue of custom and practice and why new clause 25 addresses the issue of coercion in communities, which is something we all want to deal with.
Voting against new clause 1 is not an indication of support for sex-selective practices, but an acknowledgement that it would do nothing to address the causes or reduce the incidences of sex-selective abortion and that some serious negative unintended consequences would result from enacting this proposed change to the Serious Crime Bill.
Few people would support the idea that families should be able to have abortions on the grounds of gender alone. That is why it is illegal under our current law. New clause 1 represents a significant departure from the current principles on which abortion law in this country is based. Instead, new clause 25 would require a review of the evidence relating to abortion on the grounds of gender alone, to ensure that we have a full understanding of the practice and the extent of the problem, and for that to be followed by a Government strategy to tackle it accordingly, based on the evidence
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of what works. I sincerely hope that Members on both sides of the House will vote against new clause 1 and in support of new clause 25.
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is important that we try as far as possible to develop a consensus on subjects such as this. Everyone across the House is against abortion on the grounds of gender alone. We have communicated that view, the Government have written it in guidance and we want to make it clear in statute. It is as simple as that. We do not seek to have a Trojan horse or to upgrade the status of the unborn child. On that point, one simply needs to look at section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act 1967, which refers to “child” as a legal term, so that definition is not unknown.
We could support new clause 25, which aims to develop further research and have a plan, but it is not an alternative to new clause 1. Yes, we should develop more understanding and evidence, but we should not ignore the main point of this debate, which is what brought together more than 50 Members from both sides of the House—whether they were pro-choice or pro-life—when they signed a letter in 2013. Some of them have now signed different new clauses and are seeking to divide one another when we should be coming together to show that we want to clear up the law.
We have talked about different legal experts. Why not take one, Keir Starmer, the then Director of Public Prosecutions? On 7 October 2013, he said:
“The law does not…expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions”.
That no doubt came as a surprise to many members of the public. To put it simply, that is what new clause 1 is about—it would expressly prohibit such abortions. What does the law do? As Keir Starmer went on, rather the law
“prohibits any abortion carried out without two medical practitioners having formed a view, in good faith, that the health risks of continuing with a pregnancy outweigh those of termination.”
What drew Members from both sides of the House and all sides of the ethical debate to be concerned in 2013? They jointly said that the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to prosecute
“could lead to the conclusion that gender-specific abortion is merely a matter of professional misconduct rather than illegal.”
The issue is whether we simply delegate this matter to professionals’ judgment in performing a balancing act and to their conduct, or deal with it—as we as parliamentarians should do and are charged with doing—by recognising that at the very least we must ensure that the law is clear.
What did the Department do? It responded to the concerns expressed in 2013 by deciding to issue departmental guidance to set out its interpretation of the law. As we have already heard, and we have been bombarded with lots of briefings from many organisations —the royal colleges, the TUC, the BMA and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service—there are different interpretations of the law.
Sir Edward Leigh: We have to base the law on the law. There is no mention of this in the 1967 Act. There was no possibility of mentioning it in the Act, because it
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was not possible to determine gender when it was passed. Keir Starmer is therefore absolutely right: the law is unclear.
Mr Burrowes: That is right. The Department issued helpful guidance that abortion on the grounds of gender alone was illegal. However, guidance is not sufficient. We do not simply rely on guidance in many areas of policy.
As freedom of information requests have revealed, the Government’s attempt jointly to badge all stakeholders together did not succeed, because the BMA rejected the very guidance published by the Government. It said that gender selection abortion is “normally unethical”, but that the guidance
“fails to reflect the…full legal situation regarding abortion and gender.”
The BMA therefore had a different interpretation. It also said that, separate to the issue of gender-related disability that has quite properly been raised,
“in some cases doctors may come to the conclusion that the effects of having a child of a particular gender are so severe to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman as to provide legal and ethical justification for an abortion”.
We need greater clarity than can be given in guidance; we need to be sure that such a prohibition is clear in statute. The law as it stands is not clear. We have a duty not just to leave it to a doctor to perform a balancing act. No longer should we be silent on this issue. I urge hon. Members to support new clause 1.
Several hon. Members rose—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. May I ask Members to make their comments very brief, because the debate will end at 9 pm and I want to get in as many as I can?
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Many Members, including myself, strongly support new clause 1 as a means of clarifying the law to make it absolutely clear that sex-selective abortion, which is plainly discriminatory, is illegal in the United Kingdom. In so doing, we seek to inspire the Government to develop interventions that will address the issue of why boys are more desired than girls—the issue of son preference.
In setting out my position, I want to address head on the argument that the new clause will criminalise women. That is not the case: the legal standing of women would in no way be changed, but doctors would instead be held to account, and rightly so. Sex-selective abortion is already illegal in the United Kingdom. In fact, the Prime Minister suggested in March 2014 that abortion on the grounds of gender was not only unacceptable, but illegal. It is alarming that medical organisations, such as the British Medical Pregnancy Advisory Service and the British Medical Association, have suggested that that is not the case, or that at the very least the law is silent on the matter. That must be addressed.
Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Thankfully, we do not have the Abortion Act 1967 in Northern Ireland. One of the difficulties is that organisations, such as the BMA and others, which
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constantly call for clarification of the law in Northern Ireland by seeking to extend the level of abortion there are quick to say that we do not need to clarify the law when it comes to tightening the law on abortion in Great Britain.
Jim Shannon: I thank my right hon. Friend for making that clear and salient point.
If abortion laws are unclear on whether sex-selective abortion is legal, let us tighten them up using new clause 1, so that it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that the practice is unacceptable. The new clause would inevitably clarify the law by stating explicitly that the termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child is illegal. It would add clarity and certainty for women and medical professionals, so that neither party would be left wondering what their rights and obligations were.
New clause 25 would not provide adequate means for holding doctors to account, because a prosecution would still hinge on the ambiguity of section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967. It is clear that it would do nothing to move forward the debate on the clarity of the law. New clause 1 would make it certain, without a doubt, that sex-selective abortion is illegal. There would be no conflicting interpretations, just the black letter of the law. It would force the Government not only to clarify the law, but to create initiatives to address the issue of son preference.
I will conclude, because I am conscious that others want to speak and I want to allow time for that. New clause 1 is vital for at least two reasons. First, at the moment it is possible to ask whether sex-selective abortion is illegal and to get three different answers that appear to be contradictory, but that are all correct. That will not do. If there are varying interpretations of the law and the legality of a practice is unclear, the law must be amended to thwart any confusion, particularly for women, who should be in no doubt as to their rights in this area. It is therefore important that we support new clause 1.
Secondly, campaigners such as Jeena International and Karma Nirvana suggest that a prejudicial attitude towards girls is a phenomenon that is occurring in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the time to act against sex-selective abortion is now, not when our sex ratios become distorted to the same levels as those of India and China. New clause 1 sends a clear, unequivocal message to doctors and medical practitioners that sex-selective abortion is illegal and cannot be tolerated in our society. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to vote for it tonight.
Dr Wollaston: We all agree that it is abhorrent to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of a belief that daughters are less valuable than sons. However, I will vote against new clause 1 for three reasons: it is unnecessary, there would be unintended consequences and we have insufficient time to debate what would be a fundamental change to an underlying principle of the Abortion Act 1967.
We have heard clearly that it is already illegal to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of gender alone, and rightly so. That has been clarified since many of us agreed that there was an issue. I agree that there was an issue. It was not possible to bring prosecutions until the clarification was issued by the Department of Health and the chief medical officer.
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The updated data on this issue, which examines not only ethnicity but birth order, shows that there is no evidence of a systematic practice of gender-based abortion in this country. It happens in other parts of the world, where it is having a serious distorting effect on societies and on the status of women, but there is no systematic practice here, although I have no doubt that there are individual cases.
New clause 1 would have unintended consequences. At present, women may have the confidence to disclose to a doctor in the confidence of a consulting room that they feel under pressure. If we brought in the new clause, women might feel that they may be criminalised. That would do more harm than good and bring about the exact reverse of the intended consequence of the new clause. We also risk stigmatising communities through the implication that this is a widespread practice, which it is not in the UK. We have to be clear about that.
New clause 1 uses the very emotive term, “the unborn child”. That would change the meaning within the Abortion Act. We have to be very careful about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) mentioned that the word “child” appears in the Abortion Act. I accept that, but we must look at the context in which the word is mentioned. It is mentioned in the grounds for terminating a pregnancy when there is a grave risk that a child may suffer a serious abnormality. In other words, it does not confer personhood on the foetus in the way that this change would. It may be the view of the House that that needs to change, but let us come back and debate this incredibly serious ethical point with the time it deserves, not shoehorn it on to the tail end of a new clause with which it is difficult to disagree—as I said earlier, we are all agreed that termination on the grounds that a daughter is somehow of less value than a son is totally abhorrent.
I urge hon. Members please to come back to this issue and give it the time it deserves. Let us debate it on its ethical merits, not try to pretend that we are talking about something else. We are all agreed on the fundamental premise, so let us give it the time it deserves and reject new clause 1 tonight.
Fiona Mactaggart: I speak as one of the 13 MPs who co-sponsored the original ten-minute rule Bill of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I did that because I think she was right to make people aware that sex selective abortion is illegal, and I thought her Bill was a powerful and good tactic to do that. However, I feel a bit as though I have been pulled along by a Trojan horse because, as the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, the new clause confers the status of an unborn child on the foetus, and that radically changes our abortion laws in a way I believe is dangerous.
As I said in an earlier intervention, clauses 73 and 74, which deal with coercive behaviour, contain a powerful tool that we should use to prevent the kind of coercion to which the hon. Member for Congleton referred. In those references she quoted extensively from an organisation based in my constituency, but personal experience of how that organisation has failed to help individual constituents has led me to the conclusion that it is not possible to depend on the accuracy of what it says. I am therefore concerned that we are using anecdote from an unreliable source to make legislation on the hoof.
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Having supported the hon. Lady’s original ten-minute rule Bill, I have since read something from an organisation in America that is closely linked to the all-party pro-life group that she chairs. The head of that group stated:
“I propose that we—the pro-life movement—adopt as our next goal the banning of sex…selective abortion. By formally protecting all female fetuses from abortion on the ground of their sex, we would plant in the law the proposition that the developing child is a being whose claims on us should not depend on their sex…This sense of contradiction will be further heightened among radical feminists—”
I think he means people like me—
“the shock troops of the abortion movement. They may believe that the right to abortion is fundamental to women’s emancipation, but many will recoil at the thought of aborting their unborn sisters.”
My final reason for arguing that we should reject the new clause is the concern of the British Medical Association that it will make doctors more fearful of providing abortion services and training to carry out abortions. One of the biggest risks for young women seeking help to terminate a pregnancy is not getting that help in time, as a result of which we end up with late abortions and women who cannot have abortions when they are entitled to them. One reason for that is the growing number of doctors who are reluctant to perform abortions because they practise defensive medicine. I have no doubt that the new clause is unnecessary and likely to increase that and make it more difficult for women to access their right to termination—a right that I am afraid the hon. Member for Congleton, although I agree when she says that we all agree that abortion should not be available on the basis of gender, does not support at all.
Sir Edward Leigh: If the whole House is agreed that it is morally repugnant to destroy a foetus simply on the basis of its gender—it is usually a girl—let us make that explicit in law.
Dame Angela Watkinson (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con): Very briefly—
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 5 January).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the clause be read a Second time.
The House divided:
Ayes 201, Noes 292.
20 Jan 2015 : Column 1206
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, on freedom of speech, does the Minister agree that this is not just about freedom of expression but, under Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, about the freedom to believe or not to believe, as in the case of Raif Badawi? In addition to torture, does she not agree that the reported 90 beheadings last year— 10 in this past month alone—in Saudi Arabia are one reason why groups such as Daesh have been able to take the law into their own hands in places such as Syria, emulating what has been done routinely in Saudi Arabia?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, one of the priorities of the Foreign Office is that the death penalty should be abolished throughout the world. However, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is not yet in a position where it will consider that. Sharia law is part of the very nature of its operations in the judiciary, and therefore we are not going to move to abolition. However, that does not stop us making strong representations about it. The House can be assured that at every opportunity I make the point that the death penalty does not work—quite simply, it is wrong in itself. The more we can explain that to countries around the world, the more we can improve the kind of result that we had in the United Nations vote before Christmas and the more we can persuade other countries to follow the right route, which is to abolish the death penalty.
Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabia blogger, faces another 50 lashes this Friday for writing about free speech. The Saudi authorities postponed Raif’s weekly lashes last Friday – in order to allow his wounds from the previous week’s lashings to heal before they beat him again.
You can express your concern to His Excellency, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Saudi Arabian Embassy: 30 Charles Street, London W1J
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